Iraqi special forces neared the eastern city limits of Mosul on Monday, tightening the noose as the offensive to retake the Islamic State group stronghold entered its third week. Forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) faced mortar fire as they pushed from the Christian town of Bartalla towards Mosul’s eastern suburbs, AFP correspondents at the front said.
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As an aircraft struck a suspected IS mortar position in the distance, a convoy of Humvees sprayed gunfire across the arid plain at an industrial area held by jihadists.
Lieutenant Colonel Muntadhar al-Shimmari said CTS had recaptured Bazwaya, one of two IS-held villages that had been standing between Iraqi forces and the eastern edges of Mosul.
“Tonight, if everything is secured, we will be 700 metres from Mosul,” Shimmari said.
CTS forces had entered the second village, Gogjali, and were battling to retake it, Staff Lt General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, a senior CTS commander, told AFP by telephone.
He denied reports that Iraqi forces had entered the Al-Karama area – about 2.5 kms from Gogjali – inside Mosul.
Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul on different fronts, in the country’s biggest military operation in years.
On the northern and eastern sides of Mosul, the extremist group’s last major bastion in Iraq, peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region recently took several villages and consolidated their positions.
To the south of the city, federal forces, backed by coalition artillery units stationed in the main staging base of Qayyarah, have been pushing north.
They have the most ground to cover and are still some distance from the southern limits of Mosul.
Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, opened another front over the weekend.
They are not directly headed for Mosul, instead setting their sights on the town of Tal Afar to the west, with the aim of retaking it and cutting supply lines between Mosul and the Syrian border. Their leadership says publicly that they do not intend to enter Mosul, which has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, but commanders on the ground say they want to fight inside the city.
The initial shaping phase of the operation, during which dozens of villages and several towns have already been retaken from IS, is still under way.
Once the initial phase is over, Iraqi forces are expected to besiege Mosul, attempt to open safe corridors for the million-plus civilians still believed to live there, and breach the city to take on die-hard jihadists in street battles.
In the dozens of villages and towns scattered over territory retaken from IS over the past two weeks, civilians were very slowly returning to a life free from the “caliphate” IS declared in Mosul in 2014.
Qaraqosh, which was previously Iraq’s largest Christian, saw its first mass in more than two years on Sunday.