Iraqi soldiers fighting just north of Mosul, within sight of city neighborhoods, said on Sunday they were ready to tighten the noose around Islamic State militants waging a brutal defense of their Iraqi stronghold.
Four weeks into the campaign to crush Islamic State in Mosul, the city is almost surrounded but the jihadists’ defenses have been breached so far only to the east, where they have battled elite troops for control of up to a dozen districts.
The battle for Mosul, the largest city held by the ultra-hardline Sunni Islamist group in Iraq and Syria, is the largest military operation in Iraq in a decade of turmoil unleashed by the 2003 US invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government, which has assembled a 100,000-strong coalition of troops, security forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and mainly Shi’ite militias, backed by US air power, says it will mark the end of Islamic State in Iraq.
But it cautions the fight may be a long one.
An army special forces officer on the northern front line said his men aimed to target Hadba, the first neighborhood ahead of them within city limits. The district was visible from his position in the village of Bawiza.
Brigadier Ali Abdulla said Islamic State fighters had been pushed out of Bawiza and another village, Saada, although progress had been slowed by the presence of civilians he said were being used by the militants as human shields.
“Our approach (to Hadba) will be very slow and cautious so that we can reach the families and free them from Daesh’s (Islamic State’s) grip,” Abdulla said.
The timing of the decision to move on Hadba would also depend on progress on other fronts he said. Security forces are advancing to the south of Mosul, targeting the city’s airport on the west bank of the Tigris river.
Abdulla said Islamic State was using suicide car bombs, roadside bombs, snipers and long range mortars to try to hold back the army advance in the north – all tactics it has used to lethal effect on the eastern front as well.
Another officer, Captain Oqba Nafaa, said the militants were still fighting in Saada, using a network of tunnels to carry out surprise strikes on the attacking forces.
That also echoed the urban warfare which they have deployed to lethal effect in the east of the city against elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces and an armored division.
In some districts, control has changed hands three or four times as the militants, using tunnels and exploiting the presence of civilians as cover, have launched night-time attacks and reversed military gains of the previous day.
One resident of al-Qadisiya al-Thaniya district, which the elite Counter Terrorism Service entered on Friday, said the special forces later pulled back and Islamic State fighters returned.
“They came back to us again, and this is what we feared. At night there were fierce clashes and we heard powerful explosions,” she told Reuters.