Iraqi forces have fought their way into jihadist-held Mosul, the military said. A top military commander declared that “true liberation” of the city from the Islamic State group had begun.
Just over two weeks into the massive offensive to retake Mosul — IS’s last major stronghold in Iraq — soldiers managed to push within city limits.
Troops had “entered the Judaidat Al-Mufti area, within the left bank of the city of Mosul,” said the Joint Operations Command.
Mosul is split by the Tigris River, with the eastern half of the city known as the left bank. Judaidat al-Mufti is on the southeastern side of the city.
Elite Iraqi forces had also recaptured the key village of Gogjali and taken control of a television station building. The building belongs to a local affiliate of Iraqiya state TV on the eastern edge of the city.
Fighters from the US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service had pushed into the area amid heavy fighting on the eastern front in the past two days.
“Now is the beginning of the true liberation of the city of Mosul,” Staff General Taleb Sheghati al-Kenani, the commander of the CTS, told Iraqiya from Gogjali.
“We are working with army units to secure the area and advance on Mosul together,” Muntathar Salem, a lieutenant colonel with CTS told an AFP reporter near the front line.
Soldiers from Iraq’s 16th Division also retook a series of villages north of Mosul, according to the Joint Operations Command. Meanwhile, pro-government paramilitary forces said they captured villages southwest of the city.
Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters have been converging on Mosul.
Since the offensive was launched on October 17, federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have retaken a series of villages as they advance on the city from the north, east and south.
Surrender or die
Some 4,000 to 7,000 jihadists are believed to be in and around Mosul. IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the region a cross-border “caliphate”. This came following the group’s seizure of control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria two years ago.
Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for the US-led coalition against IS, said it had targeted the jihadists with “nearly 3,000 bombs, artillery shells, rockets and missiles” since the operation began.
“We’ve taken out hundreds of fighters, fighting positions (and) weapons” in the strikes, Dorrian told AFP.
As his forces advanced, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned the jihadists they would have no place to run.
“We will close in on (IS) from every place,” he said on state television on Monday.
“They don’t have an exit, they don’t have an escape, they can only surrender. They can die or they can surrender,” said Abadi.
For now the jihadists do have an escape route — to the west towards IS-controlled territory in Syria.
Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, launched an assault at the weekend to cut off that route.
They have been advancing north, their sights set on the town of Tal Afar which commands the city’s western approaches.
On the northern and eastern sides of Mosul, peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region have taken a series of villages and towns. They have also consolidated their positions. Meanwhile, federal forces have advanced towards the city from the south.
Iraqi forces are expected to try to open safe corridors for the million-plus civilians still believed to be inside.
Aid workers are bracing for a long-feared exodus of civilians from Mosul, a relief group said on Wednesday.
Thousands of people have already been displaced by fighting around Mosul since Iraq launched a massive operation on October 17. The operation is to retake the city from the Islamic State group.
But the number could increase sharply in the coming days as fighting intensifies.
“We are now bracing ourselves for the worst. The lives of 1.2 million civilians are in grave danger. The future of all of Iraq is now in the balance,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq director said.
“In the last weeks since the final Mosul operation started, we’ve seen thousands forced to flee their homes. Families were separated, many civilians were injured and others killed by snipers or by explosive devices,” Gressmann said.
UN warns that the number of people that will be displaced could hit a million in the coming weeks.
Botched operation weakens IS Jihadists
The UN said Tuesday it had received more reports of IS fighters forcing thousands of civilians into Mosul. They possibly want to use them as human shields.
In the early hours of Monday, IS fighters “brought dozens of long trucks and mini-buses to Hamam al-Alil, south of Mosul. They are attempting to forcibly transfer some 25,000 civilians towards locations in and around Mosul,” said the UN rights office.
Coalition aircraft patrolling the area prevented most of the vehicles from reaching Mosul.
The jihadists also reportedly killed 40 former Iraqi security forces members and dumped their bodies in the river, UN rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva.
That would bring to 296 the number of former Iraqi security officers killed by IS since last Tuesday.