The Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have begun a new two-pronged offensive against ISIL in Mosul, from the northeastern Bashiqa region and through eastern Bartella villages.
Iraqi special forces joined Thursday’s offensive in a pre-dawn advance on Bartella, encountering heavy fire from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL).
Major General Maan al-Saadi said the elite Counterterrorism Forces were helped by US-led coalition air raids and heavy artillery on the fourth day of the massive operation to retake Iraq’s second-largest city from ISIL, which is also known as ISIS.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reported hearing the sound of heavy gunfire and artillery from the frontline near Bartella, as the offensive got under way.
“Earlier this morning, ISIL tried to send a suicide car bomber, but that was destroyed,” Khodr said.
“The focus of this latest offensive is to reach the perimeters of Mosul city,” Khodr added, reporting that the area in Bartella where the push is ongoing is roughly 12km away.
Special forces are expected to lead the way into Mosul, where they will face fierce resistance in an urban landscape where ISIL fighters are preparing for a climactic battle.
In the areas surrounding Mosul, Iraqi troops can benefit from the use of air power and artillery, whereas the fight will be very different once they enter the city, Khodr reported.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid, reporting from the frontline near Bashiqa, said that the “intensive” northeastern offensive, led by the Kurdish Peshmerga, also marks a new entry point into the battle.
“So far, the northeast has remained static. It is the first time they have pushed through here, all the way from the Mosul Dam,” she said. “Kurdish Peshmerga forces here are ready to encounter a lot of booby traps, as well as one of the main challenges so far, suicide bombers. But they do have air support, as well as artillery and mortar fire [as back-up].”
Abdel Hamid reported that there were “large explosions and a stream of ambulances” rushing back towards the hospitals from the frontlines, indicating casualties on the Peshmerga side in the early hours of Thursday’s offensive.
Just as the Peshmerga forces recaptured nine villages on the first day of the offensive, the goal of the northeastern push is to retake and secure surrounding areas in Bashiqa before awaiting support from Iraqi troops to prepare to enter Mosul city, Abdel Hamid added.
Meanwhile, civilians have already been displaced by the advance and ensuing battles, with hundreds of thousands more expected in the coming weeks.
The United Nations said it fears that up to a million people could be forced from their homes by the fighting.
And in Mosul, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped with dwindling supplies on Wednesday, many sheltering in basements.
“We couldn’t sleep last night because of the air strikes. The explosions were huge but I’m not sure what the targets were,” said Abu Saif, a 47-year-old resident contacted by AFP news agency. “Many families are starting to run out of some basic food goods, there is no commercial activity in Mosul – the city is cut off from the world.”
Battle for Mosul
The offensive is the largest operation launched by Iraqi forces since the 2003 US-led invasion.
More than 100,000 troops are involved, while there are thought to be nearly 5,000 ISIL fighters in and around Mosul. It is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Amer al-Jabbar, a 30-year-old soldier with the Iraqi special forces, said he was happy to be taking part in the attack and hoped to avenge two brothers killed while fighting for the Iraqi security forces.
“I had one brother who became a martyr in 2007 and another who became a martyr in 2014,” AP quoted him as saying. “I want to avenge them and I’m ready to die.”
ISIL captured Mosul during a lightning advance across northern Iraq in 2014, and ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.
Mosul is the largest city controlled by the armed group and its last major urban bastion in Iraq.
Iraq’s US-trained special forces are seen as far more capable than the security forces that crumbled as ISIL advanced in 2014. They have played a central role in retaking several cities and towns over the past year, including Ramadi and Fallujah, in the western Anbar province.
Nearly 30,000 forces, including the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters and Shia militias are taking part in the Mosul offensive, which began on Monday after months of preparation. They will be advancing on the city from several directions.
The US military is carrying out air strikes and artillery shelling in support of the operation. More than 100 US forces are embedded with the Iraqis, and hundreds more are playing a supporting role in staging bases.
Major General Gary Volesky, the top commander of US land forces in Iraq, said on Wednesday that US Army Apache attack helicopters were striking ISIL targets in support of the operation.