Islamic State leaders accept they will lose control of the city of Mosul but are planning to defend their last major urban stronghold in Iraq tenaciously, U.S. and Kurdish officials say, in much the same way they fought last year at Ramadi, leaving that town in ruins after months of seesaw, close-quarters fighting.
Heavily outnumbered on the battlefield, IS is using light weapons, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and commando-style attacks to try to slow coalition forces advancing toward Mosul. The terror group's fighters, many of them veteran, have been unable to deploy armor they captured from Iraqi forces because of punishing U.S.-led airstrikes.
Militants have set fire to sulphur stockpiles at a chemical plant near Qayyara, southeast of Mosul, and noxious fumes drifted Saturday over an airfield that is one of the main bases for the coalition assault on Mosul. The toxic, yellowish gas killed at least two local villagers and forced some Iraqi and U.S. troops to wear gas masks.
It was the latest jihadist maneuver aimed at disrupting the ground offensive by Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. An IS attack Friday against targets in and around Kirkuk, 150 kilometers from Mosul, ended Saturday after heavy clashes and coalition airstrikes throughout the day and night.
At least 80 people were killed and more than 170 were wounded in the fighting, said Brigadier General Khattab Omar of the Kirkuk police. He estimated at least 50 militants were killed while staging surprise attacks on multiple locations. U.S. war planners told VOA they expected more such attacks behind the main front lines by groups of IS fighters.
Idris Rafaat, a Kurdish security official in Kirkuk, said IS fighters had planned to blow up Kirkuk's oil wells and to free hundreds of extremists held in the town's prison.
Iraqi officials said it would take several days to extinguish the blaze at the chemical plant outside Qayyara. U.S. officials were monitoring air quality in the area.
"As weather patterns change, so will the direction of the smoke. Air samples have been sent to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and analysis is ongoing to determine what, if any, concerns may result from this incident," according to a statement by Colonel John Dorrian, a coalition spokesman.
Human shields killed
"This is yet another act that demonstrates Daesh's blatant disregard for the local population," Dorrian said, using another name for the Islamic State group.
U.S. and Kurdish officials said IS has been using civilians as human shields, rounding up men and boys, many of whom were then killed in the fighting. CNN reported Saturday that officials estimated at least 300 civilians had been killed in this way, mainly in southern districts of Mosul.
Despite fierce rear-guard resistance from militants involving suicide bombers and sustained sniper fire, anti-IS coalition forces maintained their methodical, dayslong advance on three fronts.
The Iraqi Joint Operations Command said armored units of the Iraqi security forces launched a large offensive early Saturday to recapture the largely Christian town of Hamdaniya, also known as Qaraqosh. "The Iraqi 9th Armored Division and associated forces are making advances to seize Hamdaniya district. They cleared the Hamdaniya general hospital and raised the Iraqi flag over it," the joint command said in a statement.
Qaraqosh lies 20 kilometers southeast of Mosul.
Long fight expected
Units with the ISF's 16th division were reported to be making progress Saturday at Tel Kayf, 12 kilometers north of Mosul, joining forces with up to 10,000 peshmerga militiamen.
Few officials believe the fight for Mosul will end quickly. Some still hold out hope that outnumbered IS fighters will simply flee, as they did at Fallujah in June; the terror group's leadership has been weakened by weeks of airstrikes and the loss of many top commanders.
The Kurdish interior minister, Karim Sinjari, doesn't think the fight for Mosul will end that easily, however. He expects that hand-to-hand combat in the city center lies ahead.
"If they [IS] resist in the city, especially in old Mosul, it will be a big fight," Sinjari said.
"The roads are very thin, very narrow. You can't have vehicles, you can't have tanks," he told a Reuters reporter. "I think [the fight for Mosul] will be longer than Fallujah and Tikrit. Mosul is a big city."
30 villages liberated
The coalition launched its long-awaited offensive on Mosul, the city where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his caliphate more than two years ago, on Monday. Since then, Kurdish forces have liberated 20 villages and the Iraqis another 10.
On Friday, the Iraqi air force again dropped millions of leaflets throughout the Nineveh region of northern Iraq, urging civilians to pass on intelligence about IS militants, pinpointing their locations and indicating what weapons they have.
Kurdish officials said they feared that some local Sunni Arabs were helping IS. Omar, the Kirkuk police chief, said the militants had most likely infiltrated groups of displaced civilians. General Hallo Najat, another Kurdish police official, estimated a third of local Arabs supported IS.
As Kurdish forces mopped up in Kirkuk, IS launched another raid nearby, an attempt to infiltrate the town of Laylan, 20 kilometers to the southeast. Nine militants were killed, according to the town's mayor, Mohammed Wais, and some Kurdish security force members were wounded in clashes.