Iraq’s special forces entered the outskirts of Mosul on Tuesday and were advancing toward its more urban center despite fierce resistance by ISIS group fighters who hold the city, an Iraqi general said.
It was the first time Iraqi troops have set foot in the city, Iraq’s second largest, in over two years. The advance could be the start of a grueling and slow operation for the troops, who will be forced to engage in difficult, house-to-house fighting in urban areas that is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Troops entered Gogjali, a neighborhood inside Mosul’s city limits, and by noon were only 800 meters (yards) from the more built-up Karama district, according to Major General Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces.
“The special forces have stormed in,” he said. “Daesh is fighting back and have set up concrete blast walls to block off the Karama neighborhood and our troops’ advance,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Bombs have been laid along the road into the city, he added.
Mosul is the final ISIS bastion in Iraq, the city from which it drove out a larger but demoralized Iraqi army in 2014 and declared a “caliphate” that stretched into Syria. Its loss would be a major defeat for the jihadis, but with the closest Iraqi troops still some 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the city center, much ground remains to be covered.
Tuesday’s battle opened up with Iraqi artillery, tank and machine gun fire on IS positions on the edge of Gogjali neighborhood, with the extremists responding with guided anti-tank missiles and small arms in an attempt to block the advance. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition supporting the operation added to the fire hitting the district.
Spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said that the US-led coalition, which coordinates all its attacks with the Iraqis, has been observing the battlefield and has noted that IS forces can no longer move in large numbers.
“And when we see them come together where there are significant numbers we will strike them and kill them,” he said during a televised press conference with Iraqi forces in Qayara, south of Mosul. Concerns over civilian casualties have led to air operations using precision munitions only, he added.
From the nearest village east of Mosul, Bazwaya, smoke could be seen rising from buildings in Gogjali, where shells and bombs had landed. IS fighters also lit special fires to produce dark smoke in order to obscure the aerial view of the city.
Inside the village, white flags still hung from some buildings, put up a day earlier by residents eager to show they wouldn’t resist the Iraqi forces’ advance. Some residents stood outside their homes, and children raised their hands with V-for-victory signs.
The families, estimated to number in the hundreds, will be evacuated from the village to a displaced persons camp, according to Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of the Iraqi special forces.