Iraqi special forces stepped up attacks against ISIL in Mosul on Friday, seeking to expand the army’s foothold in the east of the city after the leader of the armed group told his men there could be no retreat.
In a military statement, troops from the Counter Terrorism Service said that they had taken over the six neighbourhoods of Malayeen, Samah, Khadra, Karkukli, Quds and Karama. They raised the Iraqi flag over buildings in those neighbourhoods, and inflicted heavy losses on the fighters with ISIL, or ISIS, the statement said.
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Columns of armored vehicles wound through open desert on Friday to open a new front, pushing through dirt berms, drawing heavy fire and calling in airstrikes to enter the middle-class neighbourhoods of Tahrir and Zahara – an area once named after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi television footage from the east of the city showed heavy plumes of grey smoke rising into the sky.
Iraqi regular troops and special forces, Shia militias, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and other groups backed by US-led air raids launched a campaign two weeks ago to retake Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group’s last major urban bastion in Iraq.
Winning it back would crush the Iraqi half of a crossborder caliphate declared by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago.
ISIL also holds large parts of neighbouring Syria, but Mosul is by far the largest city under its control in either country, and the campaign to retake it is the most complex in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed a decade of turmoil.
Baghdadi: No retreat from total war
In a rare audio message released on Thursday, Baghdadi – whose whereabouts are unknown – said there could be no retreat in a “total war” against the forces arrayed against ISIL, telling fighters they must stay loyal to their commanders.
The city is still home to nearly 1.5 million people, who risk being caught up in brutal urban warfare. The United Nations has warned of a potential humanitarian crisis and a refugee exodus, although Iraqi officials say ISIL fighters are holding the civilian population as human shields.
“A lot of people here are telling us that they’re happy that they’re no longer under ISIL, that their lives were so difficult. But some are very frustrated, particularly one man who was waiting for a tent and sleeping out in the open. He said ‘life for us has been stopped’,” said Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from a campsite for internally displaced people in Khazir, north of Mosul.
Mosul residents, speaking to the Reuters news agency by telephone, said ISIL fighters were deploying artillery and rocket launchers inside and near residential areas.
Some were hidden in trees near the Wahda district in the south, while others were deployed on the rooftops of houses taken over by the militants in the Ghizlani district close to Mosul’s airport, they said.
“We saw [ISIL] fighters installing a heavy anti-aircraft machinegun alongside a rocket launchpad, and mortars as well,” one Mosul resident said.
Shia militias attacked
People in the southern and eastern neighbourhoods reported on Thursday night that barrages of artillery shells and rockets being launched from their districts towards the advancing troops had shaken their houses.
As well as the ISIL resistance in Mosul itself, the fighters have launched a series of diversionary attacks across the country since the start of the offensive.
In the town of Shirqat, about 100km south of Mosul, fighters stormed a mosque and several houses early on Friday, a local police officer said, killing seven soldiers and fighters from the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashid Shaabi.
The fighters crossed from the eastern side of the Tigris river into the town at 3am, taking over al-Baaja mosque and spreading out into alleyways. Security forces declared a curfew and said reinforcements from the Popular Mobilisation Forces were being sent to the town.
Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have closed in on it for two weeks from the north, from the eastern Nineveh plains and up the Tigris from the south.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces of mainly Shia militia groups joined the campaign on Saturday, launching an offensive to cut off any supply or escape to the west.
A spokesman said that they had made progress but had not completely closed off the western flank, and their fighters had seen from a distance some cars leaving Mosul on Thursday.