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Aug 22, 1:03 PM EDT

Iraqi troops push into IS-held town west of Mosul



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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi troops on Tuesday reached the first urban areas of the northern town of Tal Afar on the third day of a multi-pronged operation to retake it from the Islamic State group, a military commander said.

U.S.-trained special forces entered the al-Kifah neighborhood on the southwest edge of town, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah, who commands the operation, said in a statement.

Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil, of the Iraqi special forces, told The Associated Press that the advancing troops faced little resistance from IS fighters, though they did mine the approaches, fire rockets and dispatch suicide car bombers against the advancing forces.

Fadhil expected the fighting to get even heavier as they push into the town's center, which is about 4.5 kilometers (3 miles) away.

In his weekly press conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described Tuesday's progress as "excellent," calling it an "indication of the enemy's collapse."

The U.S.-backed operation was launched Sunday, a month after Iraq declared victory over IS in Mosul, the country's second largest city. Tal Afar, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Syrian border, is one of the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq.

Along with the special forces, Iraq's regular army, militarized Federal Police and Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces are taking part in the assault. Iraq's state-run TV aired live footage showing pillars of smoke rising in the distance as military vehicles traveled through wide, arid areas.

The U.S.-led coalition, says 10,000 to 50,000 civilians remain in and around Tal Afar. Some 3,200 individuals have fled in the past four days to two displacement camps south of Mosul, the International Organization for Migration said in a statement.

"These internally displaced persons (IDPs) carried a minimal amount of clothes; some only had what they wore, some were partially clothed," the statement said, adding that thousands more are expected to flee in the coming days.

Most of the residents had to walk for hours in arduous conditions before reaching safe areas, the statement said. Many "arrive exhausted and in poor health, often with critical levels of malnutrition among children, some unable to move."

Iraqi forces have driven IS from most of the major towns and cities seized by the militants in the summer of 2014, including Mosul, which was retaken after a grueling nine-month campaign.

But along with Tal Afar, the militants are still fully in control of the northern town of Hawija as well as Qaim, Rawa and Ana, in western Iraq near the Syrian border.

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Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed.

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