Mosul offensive gathers pace as army attacks Isis from northwest
Advance by armoured division means militants in corner of Iraqi city are besieged
Displaced Iraqis cross the Tigris river by military boat after a bridge was temporarily closed, south of Mosul, Iraq on Thursday. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters
The US-backed Iraqi offensive to take back Mosul from Islamic State gained fresh momentum on Thursday, with an armoured division trying to advance into the city from the northern side.
The militants are now besieged in the northwestern corner of Mosul which includes the historic Old City centre, the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, and its landmark leaning minaret where their black flag has been flying since June 2014.
The Iraqi army’s 9th Armoured Division and the rapid response units of the interior ministry have opened a new front in the northwest of the city, the military said in a statement.
The attack will help the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and interior ministry federal police troops who are painstakingly advancing from the south.
“Our forces are making a steady advance in the first hours of the offensive and Daesh fighters are breaking and retreating,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the joint operations command, told state television. He was referring to Islamic State, also known as Isis, by an Arabic acronym.
Federal police and rapid response forces advanced 1,400 metres and keep pushing ahead in the Hulela area towards the Haramat district northwest of Mosul. They were trying to reach the Tigris river bank and surround the Fifth Bridge north of the Old City, the federal police said in a statement.
A US-led international coalition is providing key air and ground support to the offensive on Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq, which started in October.
It was from the pulpit of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi revealed himself to the world in July 2014, declaring a “caliphate” that spanned parts of Syria and persecuted non-Sunni communities as well as Sunnis who did not abide by its extreme interpretation of Islam.
“An armoured division should not be going into narrow alleyways and streets but we will,” said Lieutenant General Qassem al-Maliki, commander of the 9th Armoured Division.
“There are sometimes troop shortages or orders that require us to do so and we will do our duty,” he told Reuters in an interview at a base southwest of Mosul. “We will enter with rapid response forces and CTS and we will enter as one front.”
The Iraqi army said on April 30th that it aimed to finish the battle for Mosul, the largest city to have fallen under Islamic State control in both Iraq and Syria, this month.
Not the end
Close US support should help the involvement of the armoured division and reduce the risk for civilians, US army lieutenant colonel James Browning, the partnered adviser to the Iraqi 9th Armoured Division, told Reuters at the base.
“Everything I am trying to do is try to shape the battlefield for him,” Lieut Col Browning, a battalion commander from the 82nd Airborne Division, said referring to Mr Maliki.
“I am looking at trying to strike right in front of him as well as deep, even into Old Mosul.”
US support is essential for getting rid of suicide car bombs, known as VBIEDs, driven by the militants as road torpedoes before crashing into troops.
The war is taking a heavy toll on civilians trapped behind Islamic State lines and used by the militants as shields.
Local officials and eyewitnesses have said as many as 240 people may have died in March in the Al-Jadida district of western Mosul when a blast resulted in a building collapsing.
The U.S. military has acknowledged that the US-led coalition probably had a role in the March 17th explosion, but said Islamic State also could be to blame.