By Bryan Denton and Michael R. Gordon
SHEIKH AMIR, Iraq — The Kurdish pesh merga forces started their advance by moonlight, in the early hours of Monday. East of the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, columns of tanks and trucks lumbered their way toward the objective: clearing villages of militants before any broader advance on the city could happen.
As day broke, the vehicles piled off the roads to avoid any improvised bombs and began moving across the dusty Nineveh plain toward the villages. The tank fire began, booming across the distance. Soon the crawl became a run.
Thick funnels of black smoke began rising from the towns — a past tactic used by the Islamic State militants, setting oil barrels aflame to try to screen them from American airstrikes. The strikes came anyway, sending shock waves through the haze.
The campaign to retake Mosul was officially underway. In the weeks ahead, officials are planning an array of efforts by Iraqi security forces, allied militias, Kurdish forces and air support from the United States as the assault reaches to the city — the most critical population center captured by the militants in their blitz across Iraq in 2014, and now their last major stronghold in the country.
But in the opening hours on Monday, the Kurdish advance on outlying villages east of Mosul was the main action. In response, the Islamic State unleashed at least five suicide vehicle bombs — the militant force’s take on precision-guided weapons.
Near the village of Badana, one vehicle packed with explosives streaked toward the Kurdish positions. A blast and a billowing plume of white smoke proclaimed its fate: Either a ground-fired missile or airstrike had abruptly halted the suicide run, short of its target.