Iraqi special forces advanced on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul from the east on Monday, taking heavy fire but inching closer to the city’s limits.
Car bombers are trying to stop the advance, but the troops, just 2 miles (3 kilometers) from Mosul’s outskirts, aim to enter it later in the day, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil said.
The dawn assault saw armored vehicles, including Abrams tanks, move on the village of Bazwaya as allied artillery and airstrikes hit IS positions, drawing mortar and small arms fire.
A senior officer with the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) told reporters outside the recently retaken town of Bartalla that only two villages remained on the road to Mosul.
“The target is to retake Bazwaya and Gogjali, the last two villages before Mosul,” a lieutenant colonel said.
“If we manage that, we’ll only be a few hundred meters (yards) from Mosul,” he said.
As an aircraft struck a suspected IS mortar position in the distance, the officer’s convoy of Humvees sprayed gunfire across the arid plain toward an industrial area still held by jihadists.
The Joint Operations Command coordinating Iraq’s war on IS said CTS and army forces launched a drive “to advance toward the left bank of the city of Mosul from three axes.”
Mosul is split down the middle by the Tigris River. Iraqis refer to the eastern half of the city as the left bank and the western side as the right bank.
For two weeks, Iraqi forces and their Kurdish allies, Sunni tribesmen and Shiite militias have been converging on Mosul from all directions to drive IS from Iraq’s second largest city. The operation is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Since the offensive began on October 17, Iraqi forces moving toward the city have made uneven progress. Advances have been slower in the south, with government forces there still 20 miles (35 kilometers) from the city.
The US military estimates IS has 3,000 to 5,000 fighters inside Mosul and another 1,500-2,500 in the city’s outer defensive belt. The total number includes around 1,000 foreign fighters.
A day earlier, thousands of fighters flocked to join Iraq’s state-sanctioned, Iran-backed Shiite militias who are to cut off Mosul from the west. In a series of apparent retaliation attacks, suicide bombers on Sunday struck in Baghdad’s mostly Shiite neighborhoods, killing at least 17 people.
The deadliest of the bombings, a parked car bomb, hit a popular fruit and vegetable market near a school in the northwestern Hurriyah area, killing at least 10 and wounding 34. On Monday, IS issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.