U.S.-backed Iraqi army units on Wednesday took control of the last major road out of western Mosul that had been in ISIS’ hands as the minister of displacement and migration said 26,000 people have fled in the 10 days since the operation was launched to retake the city’s western side.
The army’s 9th Armored Division was within a kilometer of Mosul’s Syria Gate, the city’s northwestern entrance, a general from the unit told Reuters by telephone.
“We effectively control the road, it is in our sight,” he said.
Mosul residents said they had not been able to travel on the highway that starts at the Syria Gate since Tuesday. The road links Mosul to Tal Afar, another ISIS stronghold 60 km to the west, and then to Syria.
A commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, Staff Lieutenant General Abdulghani al-Assadi, also told Agence France Presse on Wednesday that jihadists are putting up tough resistance in the southwest of Mosul.
The CTS is fighting “for the (Maamun) Flats area, which is considered very important for control of the Baghdad road and the surrounding neighborhoods,” al-Assadi said.
Meanwhile, Jassem Mohammed al-Jaff, the minister of displacement and migration, said field teams received “26,000 displaced people from (west) Mosul during the past 10 days.”
The number that has fled is only a small fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under ISIS rule but is expected to rise sharply in the coming days and weeks.
Sniper fire is a significant danger in the area, said Kathy Bequary, the executive director of NYC Medics, a group providing emergency care from a mobile clinic.
“We’re seeing a lot of serious gunshot wounds from snipers,” Bequary told AFP.
“Most of our patients are combatants, but civilians are affected too. Two days ago, we treated a family — a mother, father, son and daughter — who were trying to escape Mosul and were targeted by snipers,” she said.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
If they defeat ISIS in Mosul, that would crush the Iraq wing of the “caliphate” declared by the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 from the city’s grand old Nuri Mosque.
The U.S.-led coalition effort against the terrorist organization is killing the jihadists more quickly than it can replace them, British Major General Rupert Jones, deputy commander for the Combined Joint Task Force said.
With more than 45,000 killed by coalition air strikes up to August last year, “their destruction just becomes really a matter of time,” he said on Tuesday.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS’ Syria stronghold in neighboring Syria, within six months.