Iraq's armed forces started an offensive against the DAESH terrorist group on Thursday in the region around Mosul with air cover from the US-led coalition, pushing the militants out of several villages, according to a military statement read on state TV.
The offensive is the first phase of an operation that the Iraqi government aims to conclude this year with the capture of Mosul, the largest city in the north of the country.
"The first phase of the Fatah (Conquest) Operation has been launched at dawn to liberate Nineveh, raising the Iraqi flag in several villages," said the military statement.
Mosul, home to around 2 million people before it fell to DAESH during a lightning offensive in 2014, is by far the biggest city ruled by the group in either Iraq or Syria.
An Iraqi offensive to recapture it, backed by air strikes and advisers from a US-led coalition, would be the biggest counterattack ever mounted against the group.
Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state TV that both Iraqi and coalition air forces had had a significant role in the offensive.
Rasool's declaration came only a few days after the United States announced that it has set up a small Marine artillery outpost in northern Iraq to protect a nearby Iraqi military base in Makhour.
On Saturday, the militants fired at rockets at the base, killing a US Marine and wounding several others.
It was not immediately clear how long such a complex and taxing offensive would take.
Only recently, Iraqi and US officials refrained to give a specific time on when the Mosul operation could begin, saying it would take many months to prepare Iraq's still struggling military for the long-anticipated task of retaking the key city.
Some US and Iraqi officials have said it may not even be possible to retake it this year, despite repeated vows by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who vowed that 2016 would be the year of “final victory” against DAESH in Iraq.
The Iraqi army already claimed victory in Ramadi in December, seven months after it fell to DAESH, and managed to push back a DAESH offensive on Tikrit last year with the help of US coalition air strikes and Iran-backed Shiite militias.