Iraqi forces were on the doorstep of ISIS-held Mosul on Tuesday, encountering snipers, landmines and road-blocking boulders to edge ever closer to the key city.
Troops came within hundreds of meters from Mosul on Monday evening and are now the closest they’ve been since launching an operation two weeks ago to wrest the city from more than two years of ISIS rule.
Experts and officials have said that entering Mosul will likely trigger the fiercest fighting seen yet in the offensive, and that the battle is expected to be fought “street to street,” or even “house to house.”
The plan is to “squeeze” ISIS fighters from different directions, commanders say. But reports that the militant group has brought thousands of civilians — mostly women and children — into Mosul has raised serious concerns of a high number of civilian casualties in the battle.
In striking distance
Iraqi forces had surrounded the ISIS-held village of Gogjali on Mosul’s eastern outskirts on Tuesday, and by late afternoon forces had taken control of the village, Major General Maan al-Saadi, commander of Iraqi counter-terrorism special forces, told CNN. A commander on the ground said forces are working to clear any explosives ISIS may have left behind in Gogjali.
The village is the last populated area before eastern Mosul, and freeing it opens the path for forces to enter the city.
Iraqi troops took control of a state TV building on the eastern edge of the city and raised the Iraqi flag on it, according to a statement released by Iraq’s Joint military commands.
An officer with the country’s Counter-Terrorism Force told CNN that progress had been slowed by the large number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines planted by ISIS. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk with the media
Progress was also been slowed as around 20,000 civilians remain in Gogjali, and ISIS was essentially using them as human shields, according to Saadi.
Other officers told CNN that ISIS fighters had blocked the main road between the village and Mosul with boulders and that bulldozers were needed to clear them. The road is also laced with IEDs and mines, they said.
CNN correspondents near Gogjali said earlier Tuesday that they could see smoke rising on Mosul’s perimeter from oil trenches being set alight to obscure warplanes from striking ISIS targets and to deter troops from entering. Iraqi armored divisions and coalition warplanes have responded by striking ISIS positions inside the village.
Troops are now in clear striking distance of the city, and they appear to have begun an assault on Mosul from outside. Residents of an eastern neighborhood reached by phone said there had been heavy shelling of the area by Iraqi forces, and that they heard outgoing mortars and heavy machine gunfire by ISIS fighters.
Two heavy impacts had shattered windows, they said, and everyone stayed in their homes to take cover, they told CNN. A large generator supplying power to the area had also been hit, and there was heavy fighting on the main road leading into Mosul from the city of Irbil.
According to a written Turkish military statement, Turkey has moved tanks and bulldozers from Ankara to southeastern cities near the Iraqi border, its closet position to Mosul.
Its defense minister said they were being used to fight against terror, Reuters reported, and that Turkey had “no obligation to wait” to take action if needed.
PM tells ISIS: ‘Surrender or die’
On Monday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the estimated 5,000 ISIS militants holed up in the city a chilling warning as troops approached the city’s doorstep.
“There is no way to escape, either surrender or die,” he told a reporter for state-run Iraqiya TV at the Qayyara airbase south of the city.
We will “cut the head (off) the snake,” he said.
Abadi urged Mosul’s beleaguered residents, who have suffered under ISIS since June 2014, to stay indoors during the battle. He also said they should resist ISIS-propogated rumors, and do what they can to prevent ISIS from destroying the city’s infrastructure.
He added that, for the first time, Iraqi forces would be fighting side by side with Kurdish Peshmerga troops and urged politicians to “leave (their) political differences aside.”
The coalition of around 100,000 people in the Mosul offensive is an extraordinary union of ethnic and religious groups that have long stood on opposing sides in Iraq’s history.
Among them are Kurdish groups, including the Peshmerga, and Shia and Christian paramilitary groups.
The battle for Mosul is seen as one of the most significant in the fight against ISIS. The city is the group’s Iraqi stronghold and is considered the jewel off the group’s envisaged caliphate, or its so-called Islamic State.