Dispatch: Iraq secures key target of Mosul airport with ease as Isil regroups for next battle
Iraqi security forces secured most of the Mosul airport in a rapid advance yesterday that positions them on the doorstep of Islamic State-held west Mosul.
Despite earlier predictions of a fierce battle, few Isil fighters remained to defend the airfield, leaving some Iraqi soldiers confused as to whether the speed of advance indicated a dramatic collapse of Isil defences, or whether the worst may be yet to come inside the western city limits.
The morning offensive launched with air and artillery strikes on Isil positions on the edge of the city.
As Emergency Response Division (ERD) police units advanced in a column of armoured vehicles, American special forces watched from a nearby hilltop. Helicopter gunships fired salvos of rocket and cannon fire and a sugar factory - said to have been an Isil base - caught fire, raining ash on the troops.
Fleeing civilians warned of recently planted roadside bombs, and at least one IED exploded near a Humvee. Soon, though, the armoured advance reached a cratered and rubble-strewn runway.
While Isil mortar rounds blasted occasional plumes of earth along the runway, there was little of the feared heavy resistance that commander had spoken of the day before.
"I've only seen four Isil patrols enter the airport from Mosul," said federal police sniper Akram Mahsen as he surveyed the runway through binoculars.
Retaking the airport would put Iraqi forces within striking distance of west Mosul.
"At the far end of the runway are the first neighourhoods," said Atheer Ibrahim, a swaggering lieutenant colonel whose own Humvee was adorned with "Bad Boys" daubed in red paint.
"Ahead is the mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preached from," he added, pointing into the distance.
The leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Bakr has appeared in public only once and that was to lead Friday prayers at Mosul's Grand Mosque in July 2015.
It was there that he announced the formation of the caliphate and anointed himself caliph.
The speed of the advance surprised some.
"So far taking the airport has been easier than the village before it," said ERD fighter Ghassan Hamid Salahuddin.
"Our intelligence tells us that Isil fled without fighting back into west Mosul. They will hole up in tight alleys where the fighting will be on foot."
Several kilometres to the west, the sound of fighting could be heard from the Ghazlani military base where Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) were advancing.
On a hilltop overlooking that battle, a group of federal policemen reclined on mats to smoke a water pipe and watch the battle from behind a berm.
"Isil have fled from here, but we hear resistance is heavy further up," said Ali Wayd Abdul Hussein.
A medic at a nearby clinic said they had received only a dozen lightly wounded military casualties.
Over a dozen wounded civilians - including many women and children - lay groaning in the dust, though - at least four dead among them.
Some of the civilians said they had been injured by either artillery or airstrikes, while others reported being targeted by Isil mortars as they attempted to flee.
Ahmed Abdullah sat next to the bodies of two of his younger brothers, tears cutting tracks down his dust-caked face.
"We were running towards the military humvees when mortars hit us," the 22-year-old said.
A younger sister lay listless next to him, a bandage wrapped around her head, while nearby other siblings sobbed disconsolately.
An Iraqi soldier tasked with receiving fleeing civilians estimated that up to 800 had arrived yesterday after walking six kilometres to safety through the desert from their homes on the outskirts of west Mosul.
By early afternoon, the airport offensive had paused.
"We're not advancing at full speed because we want to preserve civilian life and infrastructure," federal police spokesman Colonel Taha Hussein said.
Meanwhile his jubilant men - cheering and dancing nearby with a captured Isil flag - were eager to continue.
"We'll start advancing again shortly," predicted Salahuddin, the ERD fighter. "After we've eaten lunch."