Baghdad: Iraqi special forces launched a two-pronged assault deeper into Mosul’s urban center on Friday, unleashing the most intense street battles against ISIS terrorists since the offensive began nearly three weeks ago.
Smoke rose across eastern neighborhoods of Iraq’s second-largest city as heavy fighting continued after sundown, with explosions and machine gun fire echoing in the streets as mosques called for evening prayer.
More than 3,000 Iraqi troops took part in the assault under heavy US-led coalition air support, but the pace of the fight also slowed as Iraqi forces moved from fighting in more rural areas with few civilians to the tight, narrow streets of Mosul proper. Sniper fire repeatedly stalled the advance, as commanders called in airstrikes or artillery support after coming under fire.
As the operation got underway, columns of armored vehicles wound through the desert, pushing through dirt berms and drawing heavy fire as they closed in on the middle-class Tahrir and Zahara districts. The area was once named after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Seven suicide attackers in explosives-laden vehicles barreled toward the troops, with two getting through and detonating their charges, Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Timimi told The Associated Press. The others were destroyed, including a bulldozer that was hit by an airstrike from the US-led coalition supporting the offensive.
At least seven special forces troops were killed and an officer and three soldiers were wounded, said an Iraqi military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to brief reporters.
“The operation is going well, but it’s slow. These kinds of advances are always slow,” said Iraqi special forces Capt. Malik Hameed, as IS fighters could be seen running in the distance to reposition themselves. “If we tried to go any faster we would take even more injuries.”
An Iraqi television journalist traveling in a Humvee was wounded in one of the suicide car bomb attacks.
On the heels of the special forces advances, the Iraqi army’s ninth division moved into the eastern Intisar neighborhood, said an officer from the unit who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.On Tuesday, Iraqi troops entered the city limits for the first time in more than two years, after a demoralized Iraqi army fled in the face of the Islamic State group’s 2014 blitz across large swaths of territory in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The operation to retake Mosul is expected to take weeks if not months. Moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in house-to-house battles through dense warrens of booby-trapped buildings is time consuming and Iraq’s military has repeatedly opted for slower operations in an effort to minimize casualties.
Mosul is the last major IS stronghold in Iraq, and expelling the militant group from the city would be a major blow to the survival of its self-declared “caliphate” that stretches into Syria.