Iraqi forces have made significant progress in their push towards Mosul in recent weeks, expelling the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) from areas along the road heading north from Baiji in Salaheddine province.
Following heavy fighting, army and tribal forces extended their control over the villages of Makhoul, Talul al-Baj, al-Mujammaat, Ain al-Baydha, al-Naml, Albu Umaira, Khalaf al-Ali and Almasehak, Iraqi officials told Mawtani.
Securing these villages, which surround al-Shirqat, will help military forces move towards Mosul more quickly.
The 9th Armoured Division, alongside the counter-terrorism apparatus, federal police, al-Shirqat tribal volunteers and Iraqi and coalition aircraft took part in the operations, said Ali Moussa, media adviser to the governor of Salaheddine.
"These forces have made significant progress and were able to secure several important points and intersections on the Mosul-Baiji road through al-Shirqat," he told Mawtani.
"The process is still in its beginning," he said. "The goal is the complete liberation of al-Shirqat all the way to al-Qayyarah air base which lies 60 kilometres south of Mosul."
ISIL forced into retreat
During their push north, the security forces "managed to destroy all the defences of the militants, forcing them to retreat", Moussa said.
At least 1,300 ISIL elements were killed during the battles, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence.
Iraqi forces lost three soldiers and an officer in the fighting, Moussa said.
The army "has dismantled and processed about 300 explosive devices and detonated six booby-trapped cars the terrorists used while trying to intercept the progress of our troops", he said.
About 300 families were displaced from combat zones and have been evacuated to safe shelter near the Baiji refinery, he added.
"Some families were housed in a grains storage house south of Baiji," Moussa said, noting that these families were in bad shape "as they were forced to flee from their areas on foot under the sun's heat".
"Tribal fighters have provided outstanding support for the advancing forces and participated in the liberation of most of the villages surrounding the city of al-Shirqat, which lies on the line of transportation leading to Mosul," said Sheikh Sabah al-Shammari, commander of tribal volunteers in Salaheddine.
"Our participating troops are currently stationed on the side road leading to the centre of al-Shirqat," he told Mawtani.
"We are getting ready to expel ISIL from the city and secure the rear flanks of military units heading to liberate al-Qayyarah area and its air base," he said.
Al-Shirqat is within firing range and restoring it is a matter of time, al-Shammari said, as the siege on ISIL is intensifying and the group is collapsing.
"Our fighters of al-Shirqat and our northern Salaheddine tribal volunteers are ready, with high morale, to co-operate with the army and police forces in order to clear their areas of terrorist gangs," he said.
Coalition aircraft contributed to furthering "the progress of operations through accurate hits that targeted the terrorists' convoys and fortifications", al-Shammari said.
Salaheddine provincial council member Hardan Lafta deemed the achievements of Iraqi forces in the northern regions of the province "strategic victories".
"The areas liberated in the recent military operations represent a forward base for the stationing and grouping of military units," he said.
From here, he said, the units will move in two directions -- east towards Kirkuk, where they will take part in the liberation of al-Hawija and its surrounding villages, and north towards al-Qayyarah and the city of Mosul.
Lafta said it is possible there will be a swift victory in these battles, as ISIL's capabilities "are falling apart".
"It is no longer able to retain control of areas and withstand our troops," he said.