The Iraqi Army has begun to liberate the mostly Christian Hamdaniya district in Iraq after two years of Islamic State control as troops move closer to recapturing Mosul. Iraqi soldiers stormed Monday the Christian town of Karamless, also known as Karemlesh, as part of an ongoing offensive to drive the militant group also known as ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the militant group's final stronghold in the country.

The operation is supported by Kurdish forces, Shiite militias and a U.S.-led coalition. The push to clear Karamless, which lies less than 18 miles southeast of Mosul, follows successful attempts to recapture the other nearby Christian villages of Bartella and Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida. Both towns are also located within the Hamdaniya district.

“The Iraqi 9th armored division and associated forces are making advances to seize Hamdaniya district. They cleared the Hamdaniya general hospital and raised the Iraqi flag over it,” according to a statement from the Iraqi War Media Office of the joint operation command.

Tens of thousands of Christians fled Hamdaniya in 2014 as it fell under the control of ISIS, an Islamic extremist group whose treatment of Christians has been labeled a genocide by some U.S. officials and harshly criticized internationally. Under ISIS, Christians in Iraq and Syria have been routinely imprisoned, executed, forced to convert and sold into sexual slavery. Prior to the mass exodus, Qaraqosh was Iraq's largest Christian-majority town, with a population of over 50,000. Nearly all residents have fled since the ISIS takeover, with many relocating to Kurdish-controlled Erbil.

Efforts to clear Iraqi cities of ISIS militants have been met with fierce resistance from the group. Residents of the city of Nimrod began to celebrate Sunday after Iraqi troops passed through their town, only to have the militants return and execute 284 men and boys. To distract and divert oncoming forces, ISIS used sleeper cells Friday to assault the town of Kirkuk and set fire to a sulphur plant Thursday, causing a toxic cloud to grip the battlefield.

In the wake of recent advancements by anti-ISIS forces, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Saturday in Baghdad. Abadi discussed requests by Turkey to enter the battle for Mosul. Turkey claims Mosul’s Sunni population is threatened by the participation of Shiite militias in the offensive. Abadi once again declined Turkish military intervention, however, Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim announced Sunday that Turkish troops have begun firing on ISIS positions.

615452460 Displaced Iraqi Christians take part in celebrations on Oct. 18, 2016 in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, to mark the liberation of Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town before it was overrun by the Islamic State jihadi group in August 2014. Photo: Getty Images