SOUTH OF MOSUL - US-backed Iraqi security forces captured Mosul airport from Islamic State on Thursday, advancing on multiple fronts towards the militants’ last major stronghold in the western half of the city.

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 US military commander in Iraq has said he believes US-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 militants’ 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.

 

AFP

MOSUL

Iraqi forces on Thursday thrust into Mosul airport on the southern edge of the militant stronghold for the first time since the Islamic State group overran the region in 2014.

Backed by jets, gunships and drones, forces blitzed their way across open areas south of Mosul and entered the airport compound, apparently meeting limited resistance but strafing the area for suspected snipers.

"Right now thank God we're inside Mosul airport and in front of its terminal. Our troops are liberating it," Hisham Abdul Kadhem, a commander in the interior ministry's Rapid Response units, told AFP inside the airport.

Little was left standing inside the perimeter and what used to be the runway was littered with dirt and rubble.

Most buildings were completely levelled but Iraqi forces celebrated the latest landmark in the four-month-old offensive to retake Mosul.

While Iraqi forces were not yet deployed in the northern part of the sprawling airport compound and sappers cautiously scanned the site for explosive devices, IS appeared to offer limited resistance.

As Iraqi forces approached the airport moments earlier, attack helicopters fired rockets at an old sugar factory that stands next to the perimeter wall, sending a cloud of ash floating across the area.

The push on the airport was launched at dawn and Iraqi forces stormed it within hours from the southwest.

The regional command said elite forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service were simultaneously attacking the neighbouring Ghazlani military base , where some of them were stationed before IS seized Mosul in June 2014.

Control of the base and airport would set government forces up to enter Mosul neighbourhoods on the west bank of the Tigris, a month after declaring full control of the east bank.

All of the city's bridges across the river are damaged. The US-led coalition has played a key role in supporting Iraqi forces with air strikes and advisers on the ground, and on Thursday US forces were seen on the front lines.

The American troops are not supposed to be doing the actual fighting but in recent weeks have got so close to the front that they have come under attack, coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said.

"They have come under fire at different times, they have returned fire at different times, in and around Mosul," Dorrian told reporters on Wednesday.

He declined to say if there had been any US casualties in the attacks, but an unnamed official later told CNN that several personnel had been evacuated from the battlefield.

The latest push to retake Mosul, the country's second city and the last stronghold of the militants in Iraq, was launched on Sunday and involves thousands of security personnel.

They started closing in on the airport four days ago. It is unclear how many militants tried to defend the airport but US officials said Monday that only around 2,000 remain in Mosul.

There are an estimated 750,000 civilians trapped on the city's west bank, which is a bit smaller than the east side but more densely populated. It includes the Old City and its narrow streets, which will make for a difficult terrain when Iraqi forces reach it because they will be impassable for some military vehicles.

The noose has for months now been tightening around Mosul and the living conditions for civilians are fast deteriorating.

Residents AFP has reached by phone spoke of dwindling food supplies forcing many families to survive on just one meal a day.

Medical workers say the weakest are beginning to die of the combined effect of malnutrition and the lack of medicines, which IS fighters are keeping for themselves.

An army plane late Wednesday dropped thousands of letters written by residents of the retaken east bank to their fellow citizens across the river. "Be patient and help each other... the end of injustice is near," read one of them which was signed "People from the east side."

"Stay in your homes and cooperate with the security forces. They are your brothers, they came to liberate you," read another.

A smaller than expected proportion of the east side's population fled when Iraqi forces stormed it nearly four months ago but the United Nations is bracing for a bigger exodus from the west.

It had said 250,000 people or more could flee their homes on the west bank and has scrambled to set up new displacement camps around the city.