Iraqi forces, backed by jets and helicopters, battled their way to Mosul airport on Monday as they prepared to take on the ISIS’ stronghold in the city’s west bank. The fresh push in the four-month-old operation to retake Mosul has sparked fears for 750,000 trapped civilians who risk getting killed trying to flee and face starvation if they stay.
“The federal police has resumed its advance… Our cannons are targeting ISIS defence lines with heavy fire,” federal police chief Raed Shaker Jawdat said in a statement.
Federal police forces, as well as elite units from the interior ministry, army soldiers and Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitary fighters, launched a major assault on Sunday.
On the second day of the renewed offensive, they pushed northwards towards Mosul airport, which lies on the southern approach to the city, on the east bank of the Tigris.
The assault marks a new phase in the broad operation launched on October 17 to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the terrorists’ last major stronghold in the country. The recapture of Mosul would deal a death blow to the “caliphate” which ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in the city in June 2014, but has been shrinking steadily for two years as anti-ISIS forces advanced.
But it took the Iraq’s most seasoned forces, the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, two months to retake east Mosul, where ISIS put up stiffer than expected resistance.
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Commanders and experts believe the city’s west bank could prove even harder to retake, with the narrow streets of the Old City forcing Iraqi forces to undertake perilous dismounted raids.
ISIS also “likely has stronger support within western Mosul, and the ISF (Iraqi security forces) are more likely to encounter populations that are wary or hostile,” said Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Yet after a lull in the four-month-old operation, optimism was high on the front lines.
“I don’t expect a very difficult fight: their end has arrived,” Hakem Gassem Mohammed, an officer with the interior ministry’s Rapid Response force told an AFP reporter south of Mosul.
The first day of the rekindled offensive saw forces advance in sparsely populated areas just south of the city itself.
Elite units trained for urban warfare are expected to move into west Mosul at a later stage.
According to a top army commander coordinating the operation, Abdulamir Yarallah, Iraqi forces on Sunday retook 15 villages on three different fronts converging towards the airport.
The terrorists defending Mosul’s west bank have no choice but to defend their bastion. Bridges across the Tigris in the city have been destroyed and Iraqi forces have cut off escape routes.
The forces were receiving support from a US-led coalition that has delivered more than 10,000 munitions on ISIS targets since the start of the Mosul operation.