In the week since Iraq launched an operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group, its forces have pushed toward the city from the north, east and south, battling the militants in a belt of mostly uninhabited towns and villages.
They were hampered over the weekend after IS torched a nearby sulfur plant, sending a cloud of toxic fumes into the air that mingled with smoke from oil wells the militants had lit on fire.
The fire has burned for days, reports CNN, emitting toxic plumes that has caused hundreds to seek medical treatment.
It is believed to be a strategy by ISIS to obscure the view from above.
In other areas, the militants retreated, and in at least one village civilians rose up and overthrew them before the troops arrived.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi acknowledged that the militants briefly seized the local government headquarters in the western town of Rutba, offering new details about the assault, which US and Iraqi officials have sought to downplay since it began.
The White House envoy to the US-led coalition battling IS insisted the militants’ strategy was failing, saying there had been “no diversion whatsoever” of forces taking part in the Mosul operation, which is expected to take weeks, if not months.
“Daesh is trying to launch spoiler attacks,” Brett McGurk told reporters at a Baghdad news conference, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
“This was expected, it’s planned for, and we can expect more of it.”