MOSUL/BAGHDAD: Elite Iraqi forces were engaged in “intense” fighting with rebels in eastern Mosul on Saturday, an officer said, as civilians gathered on the city’s outskirts to flee.
The special forces backed by US and Iraqi air power took control of two districts of eastern Mosul after heavy fighting in which they destroyed nine cars deployed by ISIS as suicide bombs, the military said.
The military statement said the Counter Terrorism Service took control of the districts of Al-Qadisiya Al-Thania, which it moved into on Friday, and adjacent Al-Arbajiya. But there are still weeks if not months of fighting ahead in the battle to recapture the last ISIS-held Iraqi city, and aid workers have warned that displacement may spike as Iraqi troops push deeper into Mosul.
“The fighting is intense this morning. We’re trying to fortify our positions in Arbajiyah before continuing our attack into Al-Bakr,” said Staff Lt. Col. Muntadhar Salem of CTS, referring to two Mosul areas.
Salem later clarified that the aim was to surround Al-Bakr but not to assault it for now.
Staff Lt. Col. Ali Fadhel also confirmed that objective, saying: “We… are advancing toward Al-Bakr so that we can surround it.”
“There were three car bombs coming out from Al-Bakr toward our positions that we spotted with our drone and hit with our tanks,” Salem said.
The militants are also using drones for observation, one of which was shot down by CTS forces, Fadhel said.
As fighting raged deeper in the city, civilians, some of them carrying white flags, walked toward its outskirts, gathering near an Iraqi military truck that would take them out of the city to safety.
More than 49,000 people have been displaced since the Mosul operation began, the International Organization for Migration said on Saturday.
Aid workers have said that a million or more people could be displaced by the battle for Mosul, meaning that the worst may still be ahead.
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since regained significant ground from the militants.
Infantry and armored division troops also advanced in a nearby neighborhood, destroying three rocket launchers and killing 30 militants, it said in a statement said.
Iraqi troops have been fighting for 10 days inside eastern Mosul, trying to expand their small foothold in the city which ISIS has controlled since mid-2014, when its leader declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The nearly four-week campaign to drive ISIS out of the biggest city under its control in either country has brought together an alliance of 100,000 Iraqi fighters, also backed by thousands of Western personnel on the ground.
They have faced fierce resistance from a few thousand militants who have deployed hundreds of suicide car bombers and waves of attacks by snipers, assault fighters and rocket teams.
ISIS has also used a network of tunnels around the city and merged into the civilian population of 1.5 million people still living there, helping it launch surprise raids and ambushes on the troops.
Further south, but still on the eastern fringes, troops from the First Infantry and Ninth Armored divisions attacked the militants in the Salam neighborhood.
Security forces and army troops are also advancing on southern and northern fronts close to the city, aiming to open new fronts inside Mosul to put further pressure on the ultra-hard-line militants.
The attacking forces include Iraqi army troops and special forces and federal police units. Outside the city, Kurdish peshmerga forces are holding territory to the northeast and mainly Shiite paramilitary forces are deployed to the west.