Iraqi special forces stood poised to enter Mosul in an offensive to drive out fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group after sweeping into the last village on the city’s eastern edge on Monday.
The troops said they fended off suicide car bombs without losing a soldier.
Armored vehicles drew fire from mortars and small arms as they moved on the village of Bazwaya in an assault that began at dawn, while artillery and air strikes hit ISIL, or ISIS, positions. By evening, the fighting had stopped and units took up positions less than a mile from Mosul’s eastern border and about 8 kilometres from the centre, two weeks into the offensive to retake Iraq’s second-largest city.
“We will enter the city of Mosul soon and liberate it from Daesh,” said Brigadier-General Haider Fadhil of Iraq’s special forces, using an Arabic acronym for the armed group.
He added that more than 20 ISIL fighters had been killed while his forces suffered only one light injury from a fall.
Three suicide car bombers had tried to stop the advance before the army took control of Bazwaya, but the troops destroyed them, he said. The army said another unit, its 9th Division, had moved towards Mosul and was about 5 kilometres from its eastern outskirts, the neighborhood of Gogjali.
At one point, a Humvee packed with explosives raced ahead and tried to ram the approaching forces, but Iraqi troops opened fire, blowing it up. Plumes of smoke rose from ISIL positions hit by artillery and air strikes that the army said came from the US-led coalition.
State TV described the operation as a “battle of honour” to take the city, which was captured by ISIL from a superior yet neglected Iraqi force in 2014.
Some residents hung white flags on buildings and windows in a sign they would not resist government troops, said Major Salam al-Obeidi, a member of the special forces operation in Bazwaya. He said troops asked villagers to stay in their homes as Iraqi forces moved through the streets – a precaution against possible suicide bombers.
As night fell, broken glass in the streets glistened from the light of some burning houses, with several buildings suffering collapsed roofs from air strikes. The army estimates hundreds of families are in the village, but few ventured out.
Since October 17, Iraqi forces and their Kurdish allies, Sunni tribesmen and Shia militias have been converging on Mosul from all directions. Entering Gogjali could be the start of a new slog for the troops, as they will be forced to engage in difficult, house-to-house fighting in more urban areas. The operation is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Iraqi forces have made uneven progress. Advances have been slower south of the city, with government troops still 35 kilometres away.
The US military estimates 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.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state TV on Monday in combat fatigues and urged ISIL fighters in Mosul to surrender.
“We will close in on Daesh from all angles and, God willing, we will cut the snake’s head,” he said while visiting troops in the town of Shura, south of Mosul. “They will have no way out, and no way to escape … Either they die, or surrender.”
On Sunday, thousands of fighters flocked to join Iraq’s state-sanctioned, Iran-backed Shia militias who aim to cut off Mosul from the west. In a series of apparent retaliatory attacks over the past week, bombs exploded in five of Baghdad’s mostly Shia neighborhoods.
“It is going to be a difficult fight,” said Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from east of Mosul. “Speaking to commanders on the ground, they will tell you it could be weeks, and maybe even months.”