Iraqi troops entered the outskirts of Mosul on Tuesday taking the state television building and advancing despite fierce resistance by ISIS militants who hold the city, an Iraqi general said.
In over two years, this was the first time Iraqi forces have set foot in the city, Iraq’s second largest, as the two-week campaign to recapture the jihadists’ last main bastion in Iraq entered a new phase of urban warfare.
Artillery and air strikes pounded the city, still home to 1.5 million people, and residents of the eastern neighborhood of al-Quds said the ultra-hardline Sunni militants had resorted to street fighting to try to hold the army back.
Soldiers of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CST) also stormed into the state television station in Mosul on Tuesday, the first capture of an important building in the ISIS-held city since the start of the offensive about two weeks ago, the force commander, Lieutenant-General Talib Shaghati, said.
“This is a good sign for the people of Mosul because the battle to liberate Mosul has effectively begun,” Shaghati said.
Iraqi troops, security forces, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga have been advancing on several fronts towards Mosul, backed by U.S.-led troops and air forces. Special forces units sweeping in from the east have made fastest progress.
“We are currently fighting battles on the eastern outskirts of Mosul,” CTS Lieutenant-General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi said. “The pressure is on all sides of the city to facilitate entry to the city Centre.”
He said CTS forces had cleared ISIS fighters from most of the eastern district of Kokjali, a neighborhood inside Mosul’s city limits close to al-Quds, on Tuesday, “so now we are inside the district of Mosul”.
“The special forces have stormed in,” Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces said. “Daesh is fighting back and have set up concrete blast walls to block off the Karama neighborhood and our troops’ advance,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the ISIS group. Bombs have been laid along the road into the city, he added.
Inside the village, white flags still hung from some buildings, put up a day earlier by residents eager to show they wouldn’t resist the Iraqi forces’ advance.
Reuters reported residents speaking by telephone of heavy clashes since dawn and “deafening and frightening” explosions.
“We can see Daesh fighters firing towards the Iraqi forces and moving in cars between the alleys of the neighborhood. It’s street fighting.”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Monday that Iraqi forces were trying to close off all escape routes for the several thousand ISIS fighters inside Mosul.
“God willing, we will chop off the snake’s head,” Abadi, wearing military fatigues, told state television. “They have no escape, they either die or surrender.”
Commanders have warned that the fight for Mosul, which could be the toughest of the decade-long turmoil since the U.S. invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, is likely to last for months.
The U.S. military estimates IS has 3,000-5,000 fighters in Mosul and another 1,500-2,500 in its outer defensive belt. The total includes about 1,000 foreign fighters. They stand against an anti-ISIS force that including army units, militarized police, special forces and Kurdish fighters totals over 40,000 men.
The United Nations has said the Mosul offensive could also trigger a humanitarian crisis and a possible refugee exodus if the civilians inside in Mosul seek to escape, with up to 1 million people fleeing in a worst-case scenario.
The International Organization for Migration said that nearly 18,000 people have been displaced since the start of the campaign on Oct. 17, excluding thousands of villagers who were forced back into Mosul by retreating jihadists who used them as human shields.
U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said ISIS fighters tried to force another 25,000 civilians from a town south of Mosul back towards the city on Monday. Most of the trucks carrying them turned back under pressure from patrolling aircraft, she said.