MOSUL (AFP) — Iraqi forces backed by jets and helicopters battled jihadists inside west Mosul on Saturday but still faced a tough and potentially protracted battle to retake the Islamic State group’s bastion.
Almost a week into a major push on the city’s west bank they were gaining significant ground, taking on IS on several fronts in one of the most intense phases of the four-month-old operation to retake Mosul.
Elite forces from the interior ministry’s Rapid Response units that retook Mosul airport pressed north towards the city center but their advance was expected to slow as they moved deeper.
“Right now we’re heading towards the Mosul governorate building, we’re now about one kilometer (less than a mile) from the fourth bridge,” the city’s southernmost bridge across the Tigris River, Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammadawi told AFP on the front line.
“We’re heading towards the center and also the Turkish consulate, which we’re about 500 metres from,” he said, as attack helicopters fired rockets at targets in the Jawsaq neighborhood.
As they pushed deeper from the outer edges of the city into more densely populated areas, resistance appeared to stiffen.
“Daesh is using houses full of residents as human shields,” Mohammadawi said, as tanks and troops rained fire on suspected IS snipers.
Moments later, Rapid Response fighters helped two wounded comrades back to the rear for treatment. They moaned in pain and one wore a tourniquet above his knee after being shot in the leg by a sniper.
An Iraqi female reporter, Shifa Gardi, was killed and her cameraman was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded as she was covering the clashes in west Mosul on Saturday, her channel said.
The 30-year-old journalist for Kurdish network Rudaw became the second reporter to die since the Mosul offensive began four months ago.
In areas now rid of the jihadists, residents told of their lives under IS rule and celebrated their recovered freedom.
“They made us wear short trousers and beards, cigarettes were forbidden. The women had to cover even their eyes, it was forbidden even for their eyes to appear,” said 20-year-old Othman Raad outside his home in Jawsaq.
“Now we feel relaxed, our children are safe, we are safe,” he said, even as fighting raged blocks away.
Iraqi forces launched a fresh push from the south on February 19, nearly a month after the eastern side of Mosul was declared “fully liberated”.
The west bank of Mosul is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance as IS leader in July 2014 and proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
The group once controlled about a third of Iraq but after more than two years of a government fightback supported by powerful allies such as the United States and Iran, the west bank of Mosul is the last major jihadist bastion in the country.
Iraqi forces made quick gains in recent days, blitzing through some of the last open areas south of Mosul and retaking the airport, whose runway is now a field of rubble.
Besides the Rapid Response force, elite fighters from the Counter-Terrorism Service that has done most of the heavy lifting in Iraq’s war on IS also entered west Mosul.
The fight “has moved very fast so far but we’ll see what happens in the next stage. It might be more difficult,” said Staff Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, a top CTS commander.
IS is believed to have strengthened its defenses deeper inside the city. It has had plenty of time to prepare what could turn out to be a bloody last stand since its fighters are completely surrounded.
The jihadists have punched holes in people’s homes to move across blocks of buildings without breaking cover.
AFP correspondents also saw a lot of dark smoke above west Mosul, which government forces said were from fires lit by IS as an obfuscation tactic.
Another trick IS has used in the Old City was to stretch fabric across the narrow streets to block surveillance from above, as visible in a February 19 aerial picture obtained by AFP.
A few hundred civilians managed to flee areas on the outer edges of west Mosul over the past two days, but aid groups estimate at least three quarters of a million people remained trapped on the west bank.
Aid groups have warned they faced an impossible choice of risking their lives to flee across combat lines or stay home, exposed to shelling and facing starvation as supplies become increasingly scarce.
On Friday, Iraq carried out its first airstrike in Syria, taking out two IS hideouts just across the border.
The jihadists also lost Al-Bab, their last bastion in Syria’s northern Aleppo province but struck back on Friday with a deadly suicide bombing just north of the town, in Susian, killing 51 people.