Friday 19 January 2018

Iraqi army breach Isil defences to enter Mosul

A member of Peshmerga forces cleans his weapon on the outskirts of Bashiqa, east of Mosul. Photo: Azad Lashkari
A member of Peshmerga forces cleans his weapon on the outskirts of Bashiqa, east of Mosul. Photo: Azad Lashkari

Raf Sanchez and  Qassim Abdul-Zahra Baghdad

Iraqi troops entered Mosul for the first time yesterday according to a senior officer, two weeks after the start of a massive offensive to dislodge Isil from its last stronghold in Iraq.

Soldiers from the elite Counter Terrorism Service fought their way into the Karama neighbourhood in the east of the city to engage jihadist fighters, according to General Wissam Araji.

"They have entered Mosul," he told Reuters. "They are fighting now in Hay al-Karama."

The long-awaited offensive on Mosul, the largest Iraqi city still under Isil control, began on October 17 but Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been forced to fight through a ring of surrounding villages to reach the city.

Fighters from the US-trained special force reached the edge of Mosul faster than expected and Gen Araji said they would hold off advancing further until other allied units joined them at the city's limits.

Iraqi troops are bracing for what could be months of street-by-street combat in the city of 1.5 million residents.

"The battle of Mosul will not be a picnic," said Hadi al-Amiri, of the Badu Organisation, a Shia militia force fighting alongside Iraqi government troops and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Shia militia forces took up positions to the west of Mosul over the weekend to try to cut off Isil fighters attempting to flee towards Raqqa, the jihadists' de facto capital in northern Syria. About 480 Isil fighters have been killed in the Mosul offensive so far with their bodies shipped back to Raqqa, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Earlier, Iraqi special forces fended off suicide car bombings as they swept into the last village on the city's eastern edge.

Armoured vehicles, including Abrams tanks, drew fire from mortars and small arms as they moved on the village of Bazwaya in an assault that began at dawn, while artillery and air strikes hit Isil positions.

Three suicide car bombers had tried to stop the advance before the army took control of Bazwaya, but the troops destroyed them, he said.

At one point, a Humvee packed with explosives raced ahead and tried to ram the approaching forces, but Iraqi troops opened fire, blowing it up. Plumes of smoke rose from Isil positions hit by artillery and air strikes which the army said came from the US-led coalition.

State TV described the operation as a "battle of honour" to liberate the city, which was captured by Isil from a superior yet neglected Iraqi force in 2014.

Some residents hung white flags on buildings and windows in a sign they would not resist government troops, said Maj Salam al-Obeidi, a member of the special forces operation in Bazwaya. He said troops asked villagers to stay in their homes as Iraqi forces moved through the streets - a precaution against possible suicide bombers.

The US military estimates Isil 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.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state TV in combat fatigues and urged Isil fighters in Mosul to surrender. "We will close in on Daesh from all angles and, God willing, we will cut [off] the snake's head," he said, while visiting troops in the town of Shura, south of Mosul.

"They will have no way out, and no way to escape," he said. "Either they die, or surrender." (© Daily Telegraph London)

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