Iraq’s prime minister has urged ISIL fighters in Mosul to surrender as an offensive to drive the group from the country’s second largest city continues.
A day after Haider al-Abadi appeared on state TV to order ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, to give up its positions, troops opened fire with artillery, tanks and machine guns on the fighters on the edge of the Gogjali neighbourhood.
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“They have no choice. Either they surrender or they die,” Abadi said.
The fighters responded with guided anti-tank missiles and small arms to block the anti-ISIL coalition’s advance on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from east of Mosul, said that the battle is intense as ISIL fighters are putting up stiff resistance against the approaching forces.
“We are being told by the Peshmerga forces that the black sky is the result of ISIL burning oil wells and tyres in and around Mosul,” she said.
“Now we know this is one of their tactics to try to obscure their position from coalition air strikes and also to obscure the ground. The smoke is incredibly thick, so it is an intense battle.”
If Iraqi forces enter Gogjali, it will mark the first time troops have set foot in Mosul in more than two years, after they were driven out by a much smaller force of ISIL fighters in 2014.
Fire and smoke
Air strikes by the US-led coalition supporting the operation added to the fires engulfing Gogjali.
From the nearby village of Bazwaya, smoke could be seen rising from buildings on the city’s edge, where shells and bombs were landing.
There too, ISIL fighters lit fires to make smoke to obscure the city from aircraft.
Inside the village, white flags still hung from buildings, put up a day earlier by residents eager to show they would not resist the forces’ advance.
Some residents stood outside their homes, and children raised their hands with V-for-victory signs.
The families, estimated to number hundreds, will be evacuated from the village to a displaced people’s camp, according to Iraqi special forces general Haider Fadhil.
For more than two weeks now, Iraqi forces and their Kurdish allies, Sunni tribesmen and Shia militias have been converging on Mosul from all directions to drive ISIL from the city.
The allied forces have made uneven progress in closing in on the city. Advances have been slower to the south, with government troops still 35km away.
To the north, Kurdish forces and Iraqi army units are approaching the city, and Shia militias are sweeping towards the western flank in an attempt to cut off a final escape route for ISIL, also known as ISIS.
The Shia forces – Iran-backed troops known as the Popular Mobilisation Units – are not supposed to enter Mosul, given concerns that the battle for the Sunni-majority city could aggravate sectarian tensions.
The US military estimates that 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.
They stand against an anti-ISIL force that including army units, militarised police, special forces and Kurdish fighters totals more than 40,000 men.
As the Mosul offensive has progressed, bombings have continued in the capital, Baghdad, part of what many Iraqis think are sustained ISIL efforts to destabilise their country.
Dozens have been killed since the push on Mosul started in apparent retaliation attacks.