Iraqi troops inside the embattled city of Mosul slowed their advance Sunday on the city’s eastern front where Islamic State militants have taken over neighborhoods.
“There are a lot of civilians, and we are trying to protect them,” said Lieutenant Colonel Muhanad al-Timimi. “This is one of the hardest battles that we’ve faced till now.”
On Saturday, an Iraqi general said his forces trying to encircle the city had driven Islamic State extremists out of a key town on the city’s southern front, and Kurdish forces confirmed that Iraqi flags are now flying from buildings there, near Mosul’s airport.
The advance on Hamam al-Alil, 15 kilometers south of Mosul’s center, followed an advance by Iraqi special forces against Mosul’s eastern perimeter. The Iraqis have gained a foothold in the Gogjali district of Mosul, overcoming heavy fortifications by IS militants in control of the area for the past two years.
A reporter from The Associated Press near Gogjali reported heavy combat Saturday as Islamic State fighters tried to regain territory they lost to the Iraqis Tuesday.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently visited his troops on Mosul’s eastern front, carrying what he described as a message to civilians in Mosul who have been “hostages in the hands of Daesh” (the Islamic State group).
“We will liberate you soon,” Abadi vowed, but he said the push to retake all of Mosul could come in spurts, because Iraqi forces are facing stiff resistance from IS, including roadside bombs, sniper fire and suicide car bombings.
“Our heroic forces will not retreat and will not be broken,” Abadi said.
Kurdish news reports say Abadi later flew by helicopter to Irbil, the regional capital of Kurdish Iraq, where he conferred with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and other top Kurdish officials.
In a televised statement from Irbil, Abadi said: “Our forces [at Mosul] are advancing on all fronts and there is no retreat. There is no delay in military operations, which are going as planned.”
Number of displaced
He also said the number of civilians who have been displaced from their homes in or near Mosul has been lower than anticipated, but he did not give precise estimates of how many Mosul residents have escaped from the area.
The United Nations has warned that the offensive could force hundreds of thousands people from the once vibrant city.
The long-awaited Mosul offensive was launched Tuesday, two weeks after a coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by Shi’ite militia, Sunni Arab tribesmen and U.S.-led airstrikes began the largest military operation in the country since 2003.