CAIRO - Iraqi government forces traded artillery fire Saturday with Islamic State militants as they attempted to advance into areas of eastern Mosul. Government media reported the troops had entered at least five eastern districts of the city within the past 48 hours and that bitter fighting was continuing.
Iraqi commander General Sami Aridi told state media his forces were continuing to advance. He said his forces had moved into the Mosul districts of Zahra, Karama and Tahrir and were trying to push farther into adjacent areas, but that the battle was still going on.
Commander Qassim Jassam of the Iraqi military's 9th Division said the Islamic State militants were mounting bitter resistance. He contended that IS fighters were being defeated in the Intisar district but had slowed the government advance with at least six car bombs, several suicide bombs and a variety of booby-trapped objects. He said the group was committing atrocious war crimes.
Iraqi forces also 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.
The Texas-based private security firm Stratfor released a series of satellite images taken earlier this week that showed IS defenses inside Mosul. A variety of obstacles, including cement barriers, trenches and other rubble, could be seen blocking routes into the city center.
On the western side of the Tigris River, which divides the city, satellite images revealed that IS had created a no-man's land near a strategic former military base and outside the city's main airport. Buildings that might have been used for cover by advancing Iraqi forces had been destroyed.
Government forces trying to reach Mosul from the south of the city reportedly captured the village of Hamam al-Alil, six kilometers outside the city, according to Iraqi state TV. Kurdish forces confirmed that Iraqi flags were now flying from buildings there, near Mosul's airport.
Also, Shi'ite volunteer militiamen, known as "al-Hushd," were reported to have captured four villages west of Mosul, near the town of Tel Afar.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi visited the Iraqi army's front lines near Bartella on Saturday, carrying what he described as a message to civilians in Mosul who have been "hostages in the hands of Daesh [IS].".
"We will liberate you soon," Abadi vowed, but he said the push to retake all of Mosul could come in spurts, since Iraqi forces were 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 said 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."
He also said the number of civilians who had been displaced from their homes in or near Mosul had been lower than anticipated, but did not give precise estimates of how many Mosul residents had escaped from the area.
Amid the fighting, U.N. officials told Arab media they needed at least $60 million to fund refugee camps that have been set up outside Mosul. The Iraqi government said 29,000 refugees have left areas surrounding the city since military operations began October 17.
One man who fled Mosul with his family complained to Arab media that conditions for refugees were bad and getting worse. He said there weren't enough tents for everyone and that food and sanitation situations were extremely difficult.
Abdel Sitar Shehab, who heads an Iraqi NGO in Tikrit, told Iraq's Asharqiya TV as many as 25 people were sleeping in each tent and that "some refugees are going hungry." Arab media reported a new refugee camp called Hassan al Sham had been set up outside the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil for about 3,000 people.
VOA's Lou Lorscheider contributed to this report from Washington.