Iraqi troops enter town of famed ancient ruins near Mosul
Iraqi troops entered a town south of Mosul on Sunday where Islamic State militants destroyed artefacts at a nearby ancient Assyrian archaeological site.
Special forces fended off suicide bombers during a cautious advance into the northern city.
The push into Nimrud was the most significant gain in several days for government forces, potentially opening up the area for teams to assess the damage done to the famed ruins just outside the town.
Troops are converging from several fronts on Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the biggest urban area under IS control, as part of an offensive launched last month.
The special forces have advanced the furthest so far, and hold a handful of districts on the city's eastern edge, but their progress has slowed in the face of fierce resistance in dense urban neighbourhoods full of civilians.
The operation's commander said troops took Nimrud, some 19 miles south of Mosul, after heavy fighting.
It was unclear if they had liberated the nearby 13th century BC archaeological site, which IS destroyed with explosives according to videos they released.
"The 9th division of the Iraqi army has liberated the town of Nimrud completely and raised the Iraqi flag over its buildings after the enemy suffered heavy casualties," Lt Gen Abdul-Amir Raheed Yar Allah said in a statement.
The late 1980s' discovery of treasures in Nimrud's royal tombs was one of the 20th century's most significant archaeological finds.
The government said militants, who captured the site in June 2014, destroyed it the following year using heavy military vehicles.
Video footage released by the jihadis at the time showed bearded men hammering, bulldozing and ultimately blowing up parts of the ancient Iraqi treasure, ripping down huge alabaster reliefs depicting Assyrian kings and deities.
They claim the artefacts promote idolatry that violates their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
Col John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-led forces operating the air campaign assisting the operation against IS, said few airstrikes were used near Nimrud, and the advancing Iraqi troops had moved in carefully.
"It's an important gain," he said, but warned that IS often leaves behind some combatants. "As Iraqi forces get closer to Mosul, everything becomes more difficult as they like to leave behind a few fighters to spoil the advance."
In Mosul itself, the special forces said they have cleared the Qadisiya and Zahra neighbourhoods, and are planning to advance farther in the coming hours.
Over the past week they have inched forward slowly, trying to avoid casualties among their troops and civilians as suicide bombers in armour-plated vehicles charge at them from hideouts in densely-populated areas.
"The only weapons they have left are car bombs and explosives," said Iraqi special forces Maj Gen Sami al-Aridi as he radioed with commanders in the field. "There are so many civilian cars and any one of them could be a bomb," he said.
Civilians are paying a heavy toll in the battle for Mosul, with nearly 50,000 forced from their homes, most living in displaced persons camps. The Norwegian Refugee Council said Sunday that conditions were worsening for non-combatants, especially over the past week.
"Civilians have told us of horrific stories from inside Mosul," said Wolfgang Gressmann, the group's Iraq director.
"They have given terrifying accounts of IS moving them from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and from house to house, in tactics identical with being used as human shields."