The offensive to seize back Mosul from Islamic State (IS) is going faster than planned, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on Thursday, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages on the city’s outskirts.

Howitzer and mortar fire started at dawn, hitting a group of villages held by IS about 10-20 km (6-12 miles) from Mosul, while helicopters flew overhead, according to Reuters reporters at two front line locations north and east of Mosul.

To the sound of machine gun fire and explosions, dozens of black Humvees of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), mounted with machine guns, headed towards Bartella, an abandoned Christian village just east of Mosul.

Hours later, the head of Iraq’s Special Forces, Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, told reporters at a command centre near the front line that troops had surrounded Bartella and entered the centre of the village. Two soldiers were hurt and none killed, and they had killed at least 15 militants, he said.

Prime Minister Abadi, addressing anti- IS coalition allies meeting in Paris by a video link, said: “The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed.”

A U.S.-led coalition that includes France, Italy, Britain, Canada and other Western nations is providing air and ground support to the forces that are closing in on the city in an operation that began on Monday.

A united front...