Iraq forces break into west Mosul

2017-02-24 18:16

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Athbah - Iraqi forces on Friday entered a west Mosul neighbourhood for the first time since the October launch of a massive offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State group.

The push on Al-Maamun, a small neighbourhood on the south-western edge of Mosul, came after government troops retook the airport, which commands access to the city from the south, and a nearby military base.

The jihadists have been on the back foot in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, the twin pivots of the "caliphate" they declared in July 2014.

Turkish-backed rebels ousted ISIS from the strategic Syrian town of Al-Bab on Thursday although they suffered a reverse on Friday when a suicide bomber attacked one of their command centres just outside the town, killing 42 people.

"We have attacked and fully control Ghazlani base, we have also taken Tal al-Rayyan... and we're attacking Al-Maamun neighbourhood," said Sami al-Aridhi, a lieutenant general in Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service.

Heavy fire heard from southern edge of city

He told AFP near the front line that ISIS jihadists attacked his forces with a suicide car bomb in Tal al-Rayyan, a village just outside Mosul, and that three other car bombs were found there.

Aridhi said the CTS, the most-seasoned force in Iraq, had suffered no losses since the renewed push on west Mosul was launched on Sunday.

He said some fighters had been wounded, however, including by the weaponised drones ISIS has increasingly resorted to in recent weeks.

AFP reporters south of Mosul said heavy artillery and mortar fire could be heard coming from the southern edge of the city while jets also conducted strikes.

 Iraqi Federal policemen celebrate while standing between the liberated airport and sugar plant. (Khalid Mohammed, AP)

While it was not immediately clear whether CTS forces would seek to push deep into the city or simply set up positions on the edge, the move marks another landmark in the protracted Mosul operation.

CTS spearheaded the weeks-long effort to retake areas of the city on the east bank of the Tigris River, only fully liberating it last month.

Airport secured

They met fierce resistance from jihadists defending their last major stronghold in Iraq and commanders have warned that the west bank, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate, would be even tougher.

After weeks spent redeploying across the vast theatre of operations, Iraqi forces rekindled the offensive on Sunday, with the airport the initial target.

"I can confirm that the airport is fully liberated," said Brigadier General Abbas al-Juburi, of the interior ministry's elite Rapid Response units that led the assault.

ISIS jihadists offered limited resistance at the airport and the nearby Ghazlani base, open and uninhabited areas that are difficult for them to defend in the face of the huge firepower deployed by Baghdad and its allies.

The hardest phase of the offensive on west Mosul still lies ahead.

 Smoke rises as Iraqi security forces deploy inside Mosul's international airport. (Khalid Mohammed, AP)

The west bank of Mosul includes the Old City, whose narrow streets will be impassable for some military vehicles and oblige Iraqi forces to stage perilous dismounted raids.

The jihadists are completely surrounded in west Mosul and have little choice but to fight to the death.

Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) units that have been in charge of a front in desert areas west of Mosul said on Friday they were attacked by ISIS fighters coming from Syria.

Border attacks

Hashed forces have moved to within striking distance of the ISIS-held town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and the jihadists are likely to be keen to keep some supply lines to Syria open as they weather the siege on Mosul.

ISIS militants have continued to harass Iraqi forces in areas that were retaken from them over the past two years.

On Friday, they attacked a border guard position near the Trebil crossing with Jordan, which lies about 500km west of the capital Baghdad.

"Daesh launched an attack with a suicide car bomb and gunmen on the 2nd border guard regiment near Trebil," an officer in the border guard told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"The attack came from several directions and killed 15 border guards, including two officers," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Local officials confirmed the attack and death toll.

Over the border in Syria, ISIS is under attack on three fronts.

A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has been pushing south towards the jihadists' main stronghold of Raqa.

Syrian government forces have been pushing east from Aleppo after regaining full control of the second city in December.

And a Turkish-backed rebel alliance has been pushing south from the Turkish border, ousting ISIS from Al-Bab on Thursday after weeks of deadly fighting.

Friday's deadly bombing just outside the town showed the rebels still have some way to go to secure the area.

There was no immediate claim for the bombing but it bore all the hallmarks of ISIS.

Read more on:    isis  |  iraq  |  security

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