BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces battled Islamic State militants for a third day on Tuesday in a remote western town far from the Mosul offensive, but the U.S.-led coalition insists the militants have not succeeded in diverting resources from the fight to retake Iraq's second largest city.
The assault in Rutba, hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the south of Mosul in the western Anbar province, is the latest in a series of what U.S. officials are calling "spoiler attacks," aimed at stretching Iraqi forces and sowing fear far from Mosul's front lines.
The White House envoy to the 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.
"Iraqi security forces, the local people of Rutba, are taking back their town. So this was expected, it's planned for, and we can expect more of it," Brett McGurk told reporters at a Baghdad press conference.
IS launched a complex attack on Rutba on Sunday, almost a week into the operation in Mosul, and on Tuesday Iraq's Prime Minister acknowledged that they had briefly seized the local government headquarters.
"They took control, it's true, of the municipal headquarters," he told a press conference in Baghdad. But he said Iraqi security forces drove them out "within hours" and had regained control of the town.
Last week the group launched a similar assault in and around the northern city of Kirkuk, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul, igniting gun battles that lasted two days and killed at least 80 people.
McGurk downplayed the attacks, which he said were carried out by "small, isolated teams" and were "easily defeatable." But he acknowledged that there was still a "small Daesh presence" in two Rutba neighborhoods, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The Iraqi military has insisted throughout the Rutba assault that the situation is under control, without offering further details. But Rajeh Barakat, an Anbar provincial councilman who sits on the security committee, said earlier Tuesday that IS fighters were still clashing with security forces in two southern neighborhoods of Rutba.
"We have reports saying the militants killed some civilians and members of the security forces, but we don't know how many," he said.
Near Mosul, the fighting was still underway on Tuesday in a belt of villages and towns to the north, east and south of the city. Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhil said the Iraqi special forces had reached a village located 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the eastern edge of Mosul.
The IS-run Aamaq news agency meanwhile released a video dated Monday purporting to show a missile attack on an Iraqi Abrams tank near Qayara, to the south of Mosul. The video showed what appeared to be a shoulder-fired missile hurtling toward the parked brown tank from behind at fairly close range, blowing it up and igniting a massive fireball.
Around 335 civilians were evacuated to a refugee camp from the village of Tob Zawa, about 9 kilometers (5 1/2 miles) from Mosul, which was retaken by special forces on Monday, Fadhil said. He said the civilians were relocated to protect them from possible IS shelling.
Among them was Ezzat Shaheen, who drove his car along with his wife and some of his 10 children. Others were left behind to take care of their land and cattle.
"To be honest, our life (under IS) was good," said Shaheen, a 55-year old with a white beard. "There was justice. There were clear principles —such as don't shave your beard and pray in the mosque."
"If you don't violate them, no one will (bother) you," he added.
Shaheen said he was able to sell his cattle and crops in the village or in Mosul without any problems, and that in return, he paid the militants an Islamic tax.
Others who have escaped the Mosul area have described harsh conditions under militant rule, saying the fighters imposed religious and military training on children and forced people to attend daily prayers.
Abdeljabar Antar, who had remained in Tob Zawa with his wife and four children, said the IS militants had included foreign fighters "who spoke languages I don't know — Russians, Pakistanis."
In the days before the offensive, Antar said the village ran low on food and supplies, and that residents had to get permission from IS to leave.
"I hope life will return to the way it was before 2014," he said, referring to the summer when IS militants swept across northern and central Iraq, capturing Mosul and surrounding towns.
The U.S.-led coalition said it carried out several airstrikes in support of the Mosul operation, including five on Monday that destroyed 22 fighting positions, eight tunnels and nine vehicles, one of which was rigged with explosives.
The U.S. is also providing ground support for the Mosul operation, with more than 100 American soldiers embedded with Iraqi units and hundreds more working in staging bases. A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb last week.