Iraq: Battle to recapture western Mosul from ISIS intensifies

Iraq: Battle to recontrol western Mosul from ISIS intensifies
An Iraqi security forces' member directs a tank in the liberated part of Albu Saif village south of Mosul, Iraq February 21, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces stepped up the military operations against Islamic state group (ISIS) in western Mosul and prepared on Tuesday to storm the airport and a nearby military base on its southern outskirts

The United States is providing air and ground support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces trying to dislodge the hardline group from Mosul, captured in 2014.

The offensive paused last month after the capture of the districts lying east of the Tigris river that bisects the city.

Islamic State militants who retreated across the Tigris river to western districts also regularly target civilian areas under government control in the east with mortars and grenades dropped from drones.

Since retrieving eastern Mosul last month, Iraqi forces have advanced in sparsely populated outlying areas but fighting will intensify as they near the teeming inner city of western Mosul

Iraqi federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response have made rapid progress towards western Mosul in a sweep from the south through stony desert terrain since launching the offensive’s second phase on Sunday.

After fighting their way with helicopter gunships, machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades to Albu Saif on Monday, Iraqi forces were building up their positions in the hilltop village that overlooks the airport and built-up western Mosul beyond.

Reaching the airport

Iraqi forces reached the “vicinity” of Mosul’s international airport on Monday, the military said. A Rapid Response spokesman said the airport, once retaken, would be a close-support base for the onslaught into the west of Iraq’s second-largest city.

Iraqi forces will also need to secure the Gozhlani military complex, which includes barracks and training grounds and sprawls across the area between the airport and the end of the Baghdad-Mosul highway.

A senior Iraqi official said the airport and Gozhlani base had been heavily damaged by U.S.-led air strikes to wear down IS militants ahead of the offensive. He said Iraqi forces did not anticipate much resistance at the airport or base especially as the area was exposed to air strikes and artillery bombardment.

“The next step, God willing, is to advance to the Ghozlani military base,” said Rapid Response Captain Mohammed Ali Mohsen.

The Counter-Terrorism Service, Iraqi units trained by the United States for urban warfare and which spearheaded the recapture of east Mosul, are expected to surge into the city’s west once regular forces clear access points.

36 ISIS members killed

Airstrikes on Islamic State locations in southern and western Mosul left 35 members killed on Wednesday, including a regional mayor, according to military sources.

Colonel Khodeir Saleh, from the Federal Police service, said that 35 Islamic State extremists were killed in an artillery and airstrikes by jets and cannons from the U.S.-led coalition in southern Mosul. He did not name the exact location of the strikes, but added that they coincided with other strikes at the Mosul Airport.

The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units militia said through its media service that Iraqi fighter jets killed the Islamic State’s governor town of Tal Afar, Mostafa Youssef, when they bombarded the village of Ein Tallawi in western Mosul.

However, these operation didn’t went without losses for the US forces, as US troops operating around Mosul have come under fire from ISIS and many of its fighters have been injured.

“Yes, they have been under fire at different times,” Col. John Dorrian, a coalition spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve said at a Pentagon news conference.

A US defense official later told CNN that some number of troops had been wounded and medevaced off the battlefield but declined to say how many have been wounded.

Dorrian declined to offer specifics on the firefights that have taken place, but said: “They have come under fire at different times. They have returned fire at different times in and around Mosul. That has happened at different times.”

Battle to be harder, dire humanitarian condition

Preparations are underway to launch the offensive on the western side, which is expected be more difficult because of the density of the population and the narrow streets and alleyways through which armored vehicles cannot pass.

“This is a different battle with enormous implications for civilians,” Lise Grande, the United Nations’ Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said. “We have to face the possibility of a siege in the old city.”

The United Nations estimates that up to 800,000 civilians are living in western districts. Grande said up to half of them could flee their homes “in a worst case”, twice the displacement seen in eastern Mosul.

According to the U.N., nearly 200,000 people have been displaced since the October 17 start of the operation to retake Iraq’s second-largest city.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that 46,000 of them have since returned to their homes.

She said there were currently 20 displacement camps and emergency sites around the city and added that the U.N. and its partners were “rushing to construct new sites south of Mosul.”

The government and humanitarian agencies are constructing emergency sites south of the city and stockpiling key supplies.

Food and fuel supplies are dwindling in the west, markets and shops have closed, running water is scarce and electricity in many neighborhoods is either intermittent or cut off, the United Nations said in a statement.

Few commercial supplies have reached Mosul since the main road to Syria was cut at the end of November.

“We are extremely concerned about the rapid deterioration of the conditions in west Mosul,” Grande said.