Iraqi forces advanced to within a few hundred metres of Mosul yesterday, moving within striking distance of a city they lost to the Islamic State group two years before.
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.
As an aircraft struck a suspected IS mortar position in the distance, a convoy of Humvees sprayed gunfire across the arid plain toward militant positions as they advanced.
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 700m from Mosul,” Shimmari said.
The voice of Colonel Mustafa al-Obeidi came sputtering over the radio as his men advanced cautiously through Bazwaya, sidling along walls and scanning the empty streets with their rifles raised
“They’re fleeing, the militants are fleeing into Mosul,” Obeidi said.
CTS forces also entered the second village, Gogjali, Staff Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, a senior CTS commander, told AFP by telephone.
He denied reports that Iraqi forces had entered the Al-Karama area inside Mosul, saying they were still about 2.5km (1.5 miles) away.
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 Shia 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 Hashed said yesterday that they had retaken a series of villages and surrounded others as they advanced to the west, while Iraq’s Joint Operations Command announced the recapture of villages north of 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 militants in street battles.
Humanitarian organisations have been fighting against the clock to build up the capacity to handle an expected exodus from the city.
The United Nations says up to a million people could be displaced in the coming weeks.
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