Iraqi forces storm Mosul airport, military baseFebruary 23, 2017
The troops have gained ground rapidly in outlying areas south of the city, Iraq's second largest, since launching a new phase of a four-month offensive to terminate Islamic State's territorial holdings in the country.
Elite counter terrorism forces joined the battle on Thursday in the southwest, entering the Ghozlani army base and pushing towards the districts of Tal al-Rayyan and al-Mamoun.
Federal police and an elite interior ministry unit known as Rapid Response drove Humvees flying Iraqi flags into the perimeter of the airport, and state television later said they had taken full control of the heavily damaged facility.
Islamic State fought back with suicide car bombs, drones carrying grenades and mortars, Reuters correspondents in the area said. The burnt corpses of two militants and the motorcycle from which they had fired at Iraqi forces were lying under a tree, apparently hit by an air strike.
"Daesh (Islamic State) resistance is not inconsiderable but they are trying to save their strength for inside the city," First Lieutenant Ahmed al-Ghalabi of the Rapid Response force said outside the airport's main entrance.
Iraqi forces hope to repair the airport and use it as a base from which to drive the militants from Mosul's western districts where around 750,000 people are believed to be trapped.
The United Nations has warned up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive and that residents are already suffering from food and fuel shortages.
A Reuters correspondent saw more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, fleeing towards Iraqi security forces from the district of al-Mamoun.
Several were wounded and at least one, wrapped in a blanket and carried on the back of a donkey, appeared to be dead, casualties of Islamic State mortars and roadside bombs.
"Daesh fled when counter terrorism Humvees reached al-Mamoun. We were afraid and we decided to escape towards the Humvees," Ahmed Atiya, one of the escaped civilians, said. "We were afraid of the shelling."
Troops directed the civilians to safety and medical care as mortars landed nearby. One soldier offered an elderly shepherd two cigarettes, which are banned by Islamic State.
Iraqi forces launched the new offensive on Sunday after they finished clearing militants from eastern Mosul in January and redeployed to the other side of the Tigris river that bisects the city.
On Thursday, counter-terrorism troops captured the Ghozlani base close to the Baghdad-Mosul highway, which includes barracks and training grounds, a CTS spokesman told Reuters.
The airport and the base, which Islamic State fighters seized when they overran Mosul in 2014, have been heavily damaged by air strikes intended to wear down the militants ahead of the offensive, a senior Iraqi official said.
The campaign involves a 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Shi'ite militias and Sunni tribal fighters. It is backed by an international coalition that provides vital air support as well as on-the-ground guidance and training.
Western advisers were seen close to the clashes at the airport as well as some 2 km (1 mile) behind the frontline.
One Rapid Response officer asked them for advice about which route to take to the airport. Coalition troops fired intermittently at Islamic State targets from inside MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles).
The U.S. military commander in Iraq has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will retake both of Islamic State's urban bastions - the other is the Syrian city of Raqqa - within six months, which would end the jihadists' ambitions to rule and govern significant territory.
Losing Mosul could spell the end of the Iraqi side of militants' self-styled caliphate in those countries, which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared from the city in 2014.
Iraqi commanders expect the battle in western Mosul to be more difficult than the east, however, in part because tanks and armored vehicles cannot pass through narrow alleyways that crisscross the city's ancient western districts.
Militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, melt away after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to inhabitants.
But Iraqi forces are hoping that residents will help them in pushing out the militants, who subjected people under their rule to extreme violence and deprivation.
A leaflet dropped by the Iraqi air force last week lay on a hillside near the airport on Thursday.
"Prepare to receive the sons of your armed forces and cooperate with them as your brothers on the east side did in order to reduce losses and make victory swift," it said.
Iraqi forces ‘take Mosul airport runway from Islamic State militants’
The two-pronged advance, backed by the US-led international coalition, is part of a major assault that started earlier this week to drive the Islamic State group from the western half of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
The Iraqi federal police units, backed by regular army forces, entered the airport on Thursday morning, according to two police officials who said heavy clashes were under way hours later with IS militants holed up inside several airport buildings.
The officials said troops from the US-led coalition were with the advancing forces, though they did not specify the nationalities of the foreign forces.
Lebanon-based private broadcaster Al-Mayadeen aired live footage from the Mosul airport perimeter, showing a military helicopter flying overheard and firing at IS positions as gunfire rattled.
By early afternoon, federal police commander Major General Raid Shakir Jawdat told the Iraqi state TV that his troops have control of “more than half” of the airport complex.
Separately, Iraqi special forces entered the Ghazlani military base next to the airport on the southern edge of the city, the spokesman for the Joint Military Operation Command said. Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said heavy clashes were taking place inside the base.
On Sunday, after weeks of preparations, Iraqi forces officially launched the operation to take Mosul’s western half, with the Iraqi regular army and federal police forces taking part in the initial push. Since then, the military says they have retaken nearly 50 square miles south of the city.
Thursday marked the first time the Iraqi special forces, which played a key role in securing the eastern half of the city, joined the fight for western Mosul.
“The counter-terrorism forces will be an additional force, which will expedite the liberation of Mosul’s western side,” Brig Gen Rasool said.
Also on Thursday, another counter-terrorism unit captured a key village south-west of Mosul from where Islamic State group’s snipers and shelling had been slowing the government offensive, he added.
In January, Iraqi authorities declared the eastern half of Mosul “fully liberated” from IS. The battle for western Mosul, the extremist group’s last major urban bastion in Iraq, is expected to be the most daunting yet.
The streets are older and narrower in the western section of the city, stretching west from the Tigris River that divides Mosul into the eastern and western half.
The dense urban environment will likely force Iraqi soldiers to leave the relative safety of their armoured vehicles. The presence of up to 750,000 civilians will also pose a challenge.
Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large areas of northern and western Iraq. But the Sunni militant group has since consistently lost territory as the US-led coalition proved to be critical for Iraqi government efforts to claw back territory lost to the extremists.
Fight For Mosul Moves Westward And Centers On City's AirportDays after expanding the fight for of Mosul, Iraq's security forces are pushing further into the strategic city's western portion, focusing on its airport. Thousands of ISIS fighters are believed to be in Mosul, the extremist group's biggest stronghold in Iraq.
From Erbil, Iraq, NPR's Alice Fordham reports for our Newscast unit:
"The fight to take back Mosul has been going on since October, but the push for the western half of the city is just four days old. Federal police and the army have pushed through rural villages to the outskirts of the city, and the Iraqi special forces have now joined them as they face fierce ISIS resistance around the airport.According to Iraqi News, ISIS leaders have disseminated a list of nearly 150 members who are wanted for arrest, because they fled in the face of fighting in Mosul.
"Around 450 members of the U.S.-led coalition are advising the Iraqi troops. Inside western Mosul, a resident tells NPR that ISIS has forced residents to knock holes in their houses to create tunnels for the militants to use in the coming fight there."
Government forces entered the airport on the southern edge of the city for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014, Iraqi News reports, citing state TV.
So far, government forces have been able to recapture the eastern half of the city that's divided by the Tigris River. The recent progress comes two years after a senior U.S. military official said Iraq's military was preparing to launch an offensive to take the city back.
When it was overrun by ISIS fighters in the summer of 2014, Mosul's population was around 2 million.
Announcing the new offensive Sunday, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said, "Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh."
VIDEO: Mosul airport seen as foothold for Iraqi advanceWednesday, February 22, 2017 - 01:24
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