Iraqi soldiers carry weapons during a battle with Islamic State, north of Mosul

(Reuters) The earth shook three times with the impact of air strikes targeting ISIS positions north of Mosul. Only then did the Iraqi troops assembled on the edge of the small farming village advance.

The army had gathered on Friday afternoon in a muddy street that showed signs of heavy fighting with the jihadists from a day earlier: store fronts shorn off, electricity poles pulled down, bullet casings carpeting the ground. A rooftop sentinel kept watch.

The Iraqis’ tan-colored Humvees, reinforced with steel plates around the wheels to guard against sniper fire, were dwarfed by four MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles) manned by U.S. military advisers.

The second phase of the operation to retake Mosul, ISIS last major stronghold in Iraq, began on Thursday after several weeks of deadlock in the most complex operation in the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Conventional U.S. forces deploying more extensively in this phase are now visible very close to the front lines. They are backing Iraq’s army, federal police and counter-terrorism service (CTS), whose levels of training and experience vary widely.

Since the offensive began 10 weeks ago, CTS punched into Mosul from the east and took a quarter of the city, but regular army troops like those in Sada have made slower progress advancing from the north and south, slowing the operation.

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