Iraqi forces claim to have made a major gain in the fight to push Isis out of the country by seizing control of Mosul’s airport – with the location set to be used as a staging post as troops push into the west of the city.
The units also fought their way into the Ghazlani military base close to the airport as part of a two-pronged assault from the south-west of Mosul. Civilians could be seen running away from villages as clashes continued and smoke clouds rose in the blue sky, according to reports. The Iraqi flag was once again flying near the airport’s airfield, even as Isis mortars continued to barrage the advancing forces.
Clashes continued throughout the day after the morning assault, but Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces pushed on towards Isis-held enclaves in the western part of Mosul, where the next part of the fight will take place.
Mosul is the last major stronghold for Isis fighters in Iraq, with the jihadis having taken control of the city in a blitzkrieg offensive in June 2014 before going on to attack large parts of northern and western Iraq.
The east side of Mosul was declared liberated by Iraqi forces in late January after a three-month long operation, when Iraqi units incurred high casualty rates due to the Isis deployment of large numbers of suicide car bombs. Civilians also paid a high price and thousands were rushed to nearby Irbil hospitals with injuries.
West Mosul holds the city’s old town with narrow streets where commanders say the fight will be tough, with the potential for another drawn-out fight as Isis bed-in using guerrilla tactics. However, the US-backed Iraqi forces will take heart from the apparent speed the majority of the airport was taken off – around four hours after the offensive started.
The east and west sides of the city are split by the Tigris River and west Mosul is almost completely surrounded by an array of forces. Its 750,000 residents are running out of food, fuel and have no clean water, so are drinking dirty liquid from wells. Families told The Independent they’ve been burning furniture to heat their homes and that the price of food has shot up. Potatoes are grown locally and are still fairly cheap, but one kilo of onions is now more than $10, one egg costs $1, a kilo of sugar is $18 and 20 litres of cooking gas costs $80, according to residents.
These prices are unaffordable for a population that has spent two and a half years already suffering under harsh militant rule where smoking is banned and women must cover from head to toe. Some families are so hungry, poor and scared that they have sought to flee Isis rule in western Mosul by boat, under cover of darkness.
The high number of civilians will pose a challenge to Iraqi forces, while the dense urban environment will likely force Iraqi soldiers to leave the relative safety of their armoured vehicles.
Air strikes in support of the Iraqi operation have increased in recent weeks as the push for the west side of the city drew near. On the east side of the city, Iraqi forces have made an effort to protect civilian lives and many buildings remain intact, despite rubble and rubbish littering the streets. However, some homes and buildings were destroyed by Isis car bombs, snipers, rockets, or were caught between the battle lines and are peppered with bullet holes.
On Sunday, after weeks of preparations, Iraqi forces officially launched the operation to take Mosul’s western half, with the Iraqi regular army and federal police forces taking part in the initial push.
Since then, the military says they have retaken nearly 50 square miles south of the city. The assault on the airport marked the first time the Iraqi special forces, which played a key role in securing the eastern half of the city, joined the fight for western Mosul.
“The counter-terrorism forces will be an additional force, which will expedite the liberation of Mosul's western side,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told AP.
In eastern Mosul, Isis fighters continue hurling mortars into civilian neighbourhoods from their hold outs across the river in western Mosul, causing dozens of daily injuries or deaths; as well as sending over drone mounted explosives to wreak carnage.
During a recent attack inside Mosul, soldiers suddenly stopped their patrols on a quiet residential street and began shooting towards the sky rapidly to shoot down a hovering Isis drone that was ready to drop its explosives upon them, causing carnage. The volley of firing stopped and the drone fell to the earth. This time they had been lucky – but it is likely that before Isis is defeated, the group will continue to come up with new ways to terrorise the conquering forces; before once again slipping back underground as an insurgent force, unless the root causes that gave rise to the militants are solved.
Ahmed Atiya, a civilian escaping from an area where fighting was taking place today in south west Mosul, told news agency Reuters, “Daesh [Isis] fled when counterterrorism Humvees reached al-Mamoun. We were afraid and we decided to escape towards the Humvees.”
During it’s rise Isis made gains in both Syria and Iraq, with the jihadis’ de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria the other major urban target for anti-Isis forces. In another blow to the group, Turkish-backed rebels have seized the centre of the Isis-held town of al-Bab, Turkish state media and rebels said.
Turkey launched its “Operation Euphrates Shield” in August in an effort to push Isis from its border and stop the advance of a Syrian Kurdish militia, who are fighting the jihadis.
Taking control of al-Bab about from the Turkish border, would deepen Turkish influence in an area of Syria where it has effectively created a buffer zone and would allow the Ankara-backed forces to press on towards Raqqa,
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, citing its correspondent in al-Bab, said the rebels had seized control of the town centre and were now clearing mines and explosive devices laid by the jihadists. Some 730 square miles in northern Syria has now been cleared of militant groups, it claimed.
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