Iraqi troops, backed by US-led airstrikes, have begun a major attack to drive the Islamic State extremist militia from its stronghold in the northern city of Mosul, an army spokesman said Thursday.

Militia members and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are also taking part in the operation, according to military officials and media outlets in Iraq.

Brigadier Yehia Rasul said that the operation code-named al-Fatah (Conquest) started at dawn with the initial aim of demolishing Islamic State's military facilities and training camps in the city and its outskirts.

"Since the early hours of the operation, Iraqi troops were able to liberate a number of villages and raise the Iraqi flag there," he told state television al-Iraqiya without giving details.

Another army commander put the number of recaptured villages at four, located south of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. Large numbers of troops and military vehicles were taking part in the attack, according to photos released by officials.

"The Iraqi forces killed dozens of Daesh elements and forced others to flee into Mosul," chief of Mosul operations Major General Nejm al-Jabouri told dpa, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

He gave no figures about possible casualties among the government forces.

Mosul has been under Islamic State's control since the radical Sunni group swept across Iraq's northern areas in 2014, taking the city in June.

The loss of the city at the time was a wake-up call, signaling that Iraqi forces lacked motivation and organization. There have since been concerted efforts to retrain and coordinate the forces.

In December 2015, Iraq regained the western and mostly Sunni city of Ramadi, marking the first major setback for the al-Qaeda breakaway group in months.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in an interview with dpa, promised that by the end of March his forces would launch a "full military operation to retake the city."

Islamic State still controls territory in Iraq's northern and western heartland, though it is under pressure there too.

The United States, which started an aerial campaign against Islamic State in August 2014, has accused the extremists of carrying out genocide in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State massacred the Yezidi people, a religious minority of Kurdish ethnicity.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that in Mosul, among other places, the extremists had executed Christians "solely because of their faith."

The city was once one of the most diverse in the region, home to more than 2 million people, a sizable number of whom were members of ancient religions and Christian sects dating back nearly 2,000 years.

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