Elite forces gain new ground in Mosul against ISIS

Escape routes for militants cut off but civilians are caught in crossfire

MOSUL • Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group deep inside Mosul yesterday, piling pressure on the militants who have no more escape routes but leaving trapped civilians in the crossfire.

Elite forces gained new ground in east Mosul, looking for fresh momentum as stiffer-than-expected ISIS resistance threatened to bog down the five-week-old offensive against the militants' last major stronghold in Iraq.

Mr Maan al-Saadi, a commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), said on the front line in Mosul that his forces were battling ISIS in the neighbourhood of Al-Khadraa in Iraq's second city.

"They cannot flee. They have two choices - give up or die," he said.

Over the past few days, Iraqi forces have cut off the main supply line running from Mosul to the western border with Syria, where ISIS still controls the city of Raqqa.

The US-led coalition also blew up bridges over the Tigris River that splits Mosul in two, reducing the militants' ability to resupply the eastern front.

An old British-era bridge, which cannot be used by heavy vehicles, is the only one still standing in the city.

"The Iraqi advance on the south and south-east of the city has started to pick up some steam, which we think is a really great development," coalition spokesman John Dorrian said.

"They're going to have to react to that advance. That thins out their defences."

A senior CTS commander said on Wednesday that 40 per cent of eastern Mosul had now been retaken.

Col Dorrian added: "It is extraordinarily tough fighting, just brutal, but there is an inevitability to it. The Iraqis are going to beat them."

Iraqi forces launched a major offensive on Oct 17 to retake Mosul, where militant supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate in 2014.

They are also edging towards the city from a northern front as well as from the south, where they are within striking distance of Mosul airport.

ISIS fighters moving in an intricate network of tunnels have used snipers, booby traps and a stream of suicide car bombers to stop Iraqi forces.

After cutting off Mosul from the rest of the territory held by ISIS, Iraqi Kurdish and Shi'ite forces have agreed to coordinate movements in their advance, US and Iraqi officials said yesterday.

The agreement was reached at a meeting on Wednesday between commanders of Kurdish Peshmerga forces deployed in Sinjar, west of Mosul, and Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation, the biggest component of the mostly Shi'ite paramilitary coalition known as Popular Mobilisation.

The authorities have not released casualty figures since the start of the offensive but fighters have admitted being surprised by how fierce ISIS resistance has been.

The intensity of the fighting has been one of the factors preventing civilians from fleeing to the safety of some of the camps being set up around Mosul.

The United Nations had expected around 200,000 people to flee their homes in the first few weeks of the offensive, but only about a third of that number have been displaced so far.

The International Organisation for Migration said yesterday that around 76,000 people had been displaced since Oct 17.

It said that about 7,000 people had already returned to their homes, leaving roughly 69,000 still displaced, most of them in camps.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2016, with the headline 'Elite forces gain new ground in Mosul against ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe