Nearly 1,000 people have been treated for breathing problems linked to toxic gases from a sulfur plant which Islamic State militants are suspected to have set on fire near the city of Mosul, hospital sources said on Saturday.
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No deaths were reported in connection with the incident, said the sources at the hospital in Qayyara, a town south of Mosul. The first cases began arriving on Friday morning, they said.
A sulfur plant caught fire earlier this week as the Iraqi army dislodged Islamic State fighters from the area of Mishraq, north of Qayyara. The U.S. military said the militants had deliberately set it on fire.
Iraqi forces meanwhile pushed into a town near Mosul after a wave of militant attacks in and around the northern city of Kirkuk set off more than 24 hours of heavy clashes, with ongoing skirmishes in some areas.
The Iraqi army said the 9th Division has pushed into the town of Hamdaniyah, also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida, and raised the flag over its central government compound, but the troops were likely still facing resistance in and around the town. Similar past announcements have often proved premature.
Two officers from the 9th Division confirmed troops had captured the government compound and raised the flag over it. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The town is around 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Mosul. Iraqi forces launched a wide-scale offensive earlier this week aimed at retaking Mosul, the country's second largest city, which fell to ISIS in 2014.
Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. ISIS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they move closer to the city.
ISIS said it foiled an attack on Hamdaniyah and seized vehicles and weapons left by retreating Shi'ite militiamen. The claim, carried by the extremist group's Aamaq news agency, could not be confirmed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Baghdad Saturday on an unannounced visit to meet with Iraqi commanders to discuss the offensive to retake Mosul, which the U.S. is supporting with airstrikes and advisers on the ground.
An Iraqi television station says one of its reporters was shot dead near Mosul, the second journalist in as many days to be killed while covering the conflict.
Alsumaria TV says cameraman Ali Risan was shot in the chest by a sniper Saturday during a battle in the al-Shura area. Journalist Ahmet Haceroglu of Turkmeneli TV was shot dead by a militant sniper Friday, while covering the ISIS assault on Kirkuk.
Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area.
Islamic State militants launched a rocket and opened fire on an Iraqi convoy near the town on Saturday, and the Iraqi special forces in the convoy returned fire. No one was wounded in the exchange, but it highlighted the dangers Iraqi forces face in areas that have recently been retaken from the militants.
Inside Bartella, a road extending more than 100 meters was completely demolished, with all the homes on either side reduced to rubble. ISIS graffiti was scrawled across the walls, and the militants appeared to have renamed streets and neighborhoods after famous fighters during the more than two years they controlled the area.
In Kirkuk, meanwhile, some fighting continued a day after ISIS launched a massive attack in and around the city, some 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Mosul. The assault appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from Mosul.
The area around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was heaviest on Friday, was quiet. But witnesses said there were ongoing clashes in the Asra wa Mafkudin neighborhood, where at least two ISIS fighters were killed Saturday. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
Col. Redah Sheikh Latif of the Kurdish peshmerga forces in Kirkuk confirmed there were ongoing skirmishes between ISIS snipers and security forces in the neighborhood, but said the situation was contained. He said there was also fighting in Wara Tappa, a suburb.
On Friday the militants killed 13 workers, including four Iranians, at a power plant north of Kirkuk. It was not clear if there were other casualties among civilians in Kirkuk or the Kurdish security forces who control the city.
Iraq launched a long-awaited operation on Monday aimed at retaking Mosul, its second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Carter's visit comes two days after a U.S. service member was killed outside Mosul, underscoring the risk that American troops are taking as they advise Iraqi forces in the fight.
The U.S. service member killed earlier this week was the fourth U.S. combat death in Iraq since the U.S. began military operations against the Islamic State in August 2014, and the first since the Mosul operation began. The service member was working with Iraqi special forces northeast of Mosul and serving as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist.
More than 4,800 U.S. troops are in Iraq and there are more than 100 U.S. special operations forces operating with Iraqi units. Hundreds more American troops are playing a support role in staging bases farther from the front lines.
U.S. military officials say that a fire at a sulfur plant in northern Iraq set by Islamic State militants on Thursday is creating a potential breathing hazard for American forces and other troops at a logistical base south of Mosul.
Two officials said that while the fire was set two days ago in Mishraq, the winds shifted earlier Saturday, sending the smoke south toward Qayara West air field, a staging area for the Mosul offensive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
They said troops at the base were wearing protective masks because of the breathing concerns, and estimated it could take two to three days to put the fire out.