MOSUL, Iraq — The Latest on the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group (all times local):
New satellite images show that IS militants in Mosul have set up daunting defenses designed to bog down advancing forces.
The images taken Monday and made public Saturday by Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor, show rows of concrete barricades, earthen berms and rubble blocking key routes leading to the core of the city.
Militants have also cleared terrain and leveled buildings around Mosul airport and a nearby former military base on the west bank of the Tigris. The group likely did so to create a wall to better target Iraqi forces and give them open spaces to fire on advancing troops from further away, according to Stratfor.
The intelligence firm said these defenses “will pose a substantial tactical challenge” to Iraqi forces as they make their way toward central Mosul.
Iraqi special forces are clearing buildings in neighborhoods they entered in eastern Mosul a day earlier, after pushing out Islamic State militants in their drive to take back the city.
Fighting continued Saturday morning, with both sides firing mortars and automatic weapons on each other’s positions, while the Iraqi troops also responded with artillery. Clashes were most intense in the al-Bakr neighborhood. Sniper duels played out from rooftops in the mostly residential areas, where the majority of buildings are two stories high.
The special forces launched a two-pronged assault deeper into Mosul’s urban center on Friday, unleashing the most intense street battles against IS militants since the offensive to retake the city began nearly three weeks ago. At least seven special forces troops have been killed in the fighting.
From Al Zazeera
Two roadside bombs struck a convoy carrying Iraqi families fleeing an ISIL-controlled town in the north of the country late on Friday, killing at least 18 people, a police officer said.
The bombs targeted a truck carrying people from Hawija, about 120kms (75 miles) south of ISIL’s stronghold in Mosul, as they were being taken to the town of Al Alam, next to the Tigris river.
Seventeen of the dead were from the displaced families, regional police Colonel Nemaa al-Jabouri told the Reuters news agency. One policeman in an accompanying patrol car was also killed.
Pictures published on social media by a group linked to Iraq’s defence ministry showed several blackened corpses next to the twisted metal remains of the truck.
“The victims were being transported there by Iraqi armed services, so even though they felt they were safe in this convoy, they were still attacked,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Khazir, north of Mosul, at a campsite for people fleeing the fighting.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, took control of Mosul in 2014. Last month, two years later, Iraqi troops and special forces, Shia militias, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and other groups backed by US-led air raids launched a campaign to retake the city.
The attack on the convoy came as Iraqi special forces cleared buildings on Saturday in neighborhoods they entered in eastern Mosul a day before, after pushing out ISIL fighters.
Fighting continued in the morning, with both sides firing mortars and automatic weapons at each other’s positions, while Iraqi troops also responded with artillery. Clashes were most intense in the al-Bakr neighbourhood. Sniper duels played out from rooftops in the mostly residential areas, where the majority of buildings are two stories high.
“[ISIL] is in the city centre and we must be very careful as our forces advance,” said Major General Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces.
With more densely packed neighbourhoods ahead, his forces will be challenged to avoid both higher military and civilian casualties.
As he spoke, dozens of civilians in the Tahrir and Zahara districts emerged from their homes, some of them carrying white flags, and headed toward the troops to be evacuated from the battlefield.
Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies
While the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) fought the Islamic State group in the streets of Mosul, the army and federal police attacked one of the last sizeable towns on the more distant southern front.
The mass exodus feared by aid groups of some of the million-plus civilians still trapped in Mosul has yet to materialise but the number of people displaced by the battle has grown sharply in recent days.
“Our forces are now engaged in fierce fighting inside the neighbourhoods of east Mosul,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Noman said, adding that the “fighting is house to house.”
In Bartalla, a town to the east that Iraqi forces have used as a base since retaking it in the early days of the nearly three-week-old offensive, ambulances returning from the front with wounded CTS fighters whizzed by on a regular basis.
CTS forces made their first real push into the streets of Mosul on Friday but were met by a deluge of bombs and gunfire, and eventually forced into a partial pullback after a few hours.
– Southern front –
“We weren’t expecting such resistance. They had blocked all the roads,” said one officer. “There are large numbers of jihadists… It was preferable to pull back and devise a new plan.”
The hitch in the CTS advance appeared to contradict reports that IS had moved its resources away from the east of Mosul to the west bank of the River Tigris.
The jihadist group had looked increasingly pragmatic when vastly outnumbered and outgunned in recent months, sometimes giving up emblematic bastions almost without a fight.
But some of the 3,000 to 5,000 jihadists estimated to be inside the city may have been galvanised by a rare message from their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Thursday.
The jihadist supremo released an audio recording for the first time in almost a year urging his fighters not to retreat.
Federal forces on the southern front attacked Hamam al-Alil, one of the main towns between their staging base in Qayyarah and Mosul.
“Army and federal police forces are attacking the Hamam al-Alil (area) from three sides with the support of army aviation,” Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir Yarallah said in a statement released by Joint Operations Command.
Forces working their way up the Tigris Valley have had more distance to cover than those on other fronts since Iraq launched the operation to retake Mosul on October 17.
Their advance has been slowed by IS resistance in villages along the way, bombs planted by the jihadists and concerns for the safety of civilians that has in some cases prevented full use of their firepower.
– ‘Ahead of schedule’ –
While the corridors called for by aid groups to allow the safe passage of civilians have yet to materialise, the number of arrivals in the displacement camps dotting the area has increased markedly.
The ministry of displacement and migration said it had taken in 9,000 displaced people during the past two days.
It put the total number of Iraqis displaced into camps since the start of the operation at 29,539.
Relief organisations were fighting the clock to build up their shelter capacity ahead of the feared mass exodus from Mosul.
Despite complaints from Iraqi forces on the ground that the number of air strikes has been insufficient, the US-led coalition insists it is providing more intense and sustained air support than ever before in its two-year campaign against IS.
Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the coalition, hailed the latest military developments in a message on social media.
“New advances on all axes. Ways to go, but ahead of schedule,” he said.
US and other commanders have warned that the offensive could take weeks or months.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has visited the front lines several times since the offensive started, has vowed to rid the country of IS by the end of the year.
Retaking Mosul could effectively end the IS group’s days as a land-holding force in Iraq and deal a death blow to the “caliphate” Baghdadi proclaimed in the city in June 2014.
Tags: al-Bakr, concrete barricades, Daesh, defenses around Mosul, earthen berms, Hawija, Iraq, Iraqi special forces, ISIL, Islamic state, Major General Sami al-Aridi, Mosul, piles of rubble, Sniper duels, Stratfor, Tahrir, Zahara