Mosul under siege as Iraqi forces, Islamic State militants battle near airport

Islamic State militants are under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Mosul, Nineveh Governorate, Iraq Feb 20, 2017, 12.31 PM (IST)

US-backed Iraqi forces are engaged in a massive firefight with Islamic State fighters to clear the way to Mosul's airport, on the second day of a ground offensive on the jihadists' remaining stronghold in the western side of the city.

Federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response are leading the charge toward the airport, located on the southern limit of the Mosul, trying to dislodge the militants from a nearby hill known as Albu Saif. The Iraqi forces plan is to turn the airport into a close support base for the onslaught into western Mosul itself.

Iraqi Army Brigadier General Yahya Rasul, spokesperson for the Joint Operations Command, told to the Kurdish media Rudaw that they will face approximately 1,800 Islamic State militants with at least 200 suicide bombers ready to strike. 

Islamic State militants are under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month, after 100 days of fighting.

Helicopters were strafing the Albu Saif hill to clear it of snipers, while machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard. The advancing forces also disabled a car bomb - used by the militants to obstruct attacking forces. The Iraqi forces have been advancing so far in sparsely populated areas. 

On Monday morning the Iraqi army took control of the main power station which supplies electricity to Mosul’s entire western bank.

This third phase of the Mosul offensive could be the last military offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq. This does not mean that the organisation is completely destroyed, they still have a strong influence on young men across the region who are ready to take up arms and fight back.

The IS is also under attack in Syria on many fronts: the US-backed Arab/Kurd Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army are attacking from the north, the Syrian army is attacking from the west and both Russian and US-led coalition figher jets are bombing them. The IS' capital city in Syria, Raqqa, is still solidly under the organisation's control, but it is likely that as soon as countries involved in Syria agree to fight together, a massive offensive will start. 


Iraqi Rapid Response force members fire a missile towards Islamic State militants during a battle in south Mosul. (Reuters)


Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets remain closed, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters on Saturday.

Commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east of the city, which Iraqi forces have taken control of last month after three months of fighting because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.

Western Mosul contains the old city centre, with its ancient souks, government administrative buildings, and the mosque from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. The city is the largest urban centre captured by Islamic State in both countries.

The area is densely populated and it will be nearly impossible to conduct airstrikes if the coalition forces do not want to risk massive civilian casualties. One bomb missing the objective could cost hundreds of innocent lives. It is also very difficult to gather intelligence insights from the city since the Islamic State controls nearly all the communications and everyone who is found in possess of a phone carrying suspicious numbers will be executed in cold blood.

Living in western Mosul during this phase of the operation is highly risky, the city's population has been bearing the brunt of the offensive since months. The Islamic State is in a full-war mode and it is ready to kill whoever tries to escape and reach the eastern area of the city, currently under Iraqi army control. The city suffers also a severe shortage of any primary necessity, from food to running water.

Many of the inner streets are very small and while advancing soldiers do not always enjoy support of armoured vehicles and might even conduct operations on foot in a pure guerrilla style warfare. This makes them highly prone to deadly ambush and sniper fire - both methods that the Islamic State have used extensively during previous battles. 

Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad on Monday on an unannounced visit but declined to offer details about US battle plans when speaking to reporters on Sunday. "The coalition forces are in support of this operation and we will continue ... with the accelerated effort to destroy ISIS," he declared.

(WION wth inputs from Reuters)