U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces on Thursday opened a new front in the battle for Mosul in preparation for a final assault to liberate the city from Islamic State control.
“This new advance from the 9th Iraqi Army Division is intended to break the enemy,” said Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
Driving the militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, would be a major victory for Iraqi forces. More than two years ago Islamic State militants swept into Iraq and seized the city along with a other parts of the country. The collapse of Iraq’s U.S.-trained armed forces and the loss of Mosul was a major blow to Iraq, giving the militants an important foothold in the region.
The latest advance is being led by an armored division, along with elements of Iraq’s federal police. The forces were positioned northwest of the city and have begun advancing into the city. Other Iraqi forces continued to press the city from the south.
Before starting the new advance, the division had been in a blocking position west of Mosul, where it was preventing the movement of fighters between Mosul and Tal Afar, a remaining militant stronghold in Iraq.
The offensive into western Mosul had slowed in recent weeks as Iraqi forces pushed toward densely packed city neighborhoods and were met with improvised explosives, snipers and car bombs. The western part of Mosul is marked by narrow roads, alleys and ancient buildings. Thousands of civilians remain trapped in the city.
Routing an enemy from well-defended positions in a city is among the most difficult type of fighting, more so as the enemy falls back to an increasingly smaller area, with little room for advancing forces to maneuver.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been surrounded for more than six months in Mosul and has lost many key leaders. The fighters inside the city have struggled to command their forces in the face of Iraq’s military advances, the Pentagon has said.
U.S. advisers are accompanying Iraq’s military, and American warplanes — including Apache helicopter gunships — are providing air support.
Fewer than 1,000 militants remain in the city, down from 3,500 to 5,000 before the offensive started in October, according to Pentagon estimates.
“Now is the time for decisive operations,” Dorrian said. “The enemy doesn’t have the ability … to respond to multiple axes of advance,” Dorrian said.
Operations on the east side of the city followed a similar pattern. An Iraqi advance ground the militants down, but eventually slowed as ISIS lost terrain. The Iraqis then repositioned their forces to attack from multiple directions.
The eastern part of the city was cleared by January, after several months of fighting. An operation to clear the western side began shortly after that.
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