26 Feb 2017

Battle for Mosul: 'Most dangerous phase' set to begin

9:39 pm on 26 February 2017

US-backed Iraqi forces have pushed deeper into western Mosul, after punching through the defences of Islamic State's last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

US-backed Iraqi forces have pushed deeper into western Mosul, advancing in several populated southern districts after punching through the defences of Islamic State's last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

A member of Iraq's elite Rapid Response Division holds position in the northern city of Mosul as they continue the offensive to retake the city's western half from Islamic State (IS).

A member of Iraq's elite Rapid Response Division holds position in the northern city of Mosul as they continue the offensive to retake the city's western half from Islamic State (IS). Photo: AFP

About 1000 civilians have also walked across the frontlines, the largest movement since the new offensive launched last week to deal the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim group a decisive blow.

In the capital Baghdad, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Saturday in the first such visit in more than a decade between Sunni Muslim-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite-led Iraq.

The new push in Mosul comes after government forces and their allies finished clearing Islamic State (IS) from the east of the northern Iraqi city last month, confining the insurgents to the western sector on the other side of the Tigris river.

Commanders expect the battle in western Mosul to be more difficult, in part because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through the narrow alleyways that crisscross ancient districts there.

But Iraqi forces have so far made quick advances on multiple fronts, capturing the northern city's airport which they plan to use as a support zone, and breaching a 3m-high berm and trench set up by IS.

The advancing forces are less than 3km from the mosque in the old city where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria in 2014, sparking an international military campaign to defeat the group.

Losing Mosul would likely deal a hammer blow to the militants' dream of statehood, but they still control swathes of territory in Syria and patches of northern and western Iraq from where they could fight a guerrilla-style insurgency in Iraq, and plot attacks on the West.

Iraqi forces advance towards Mosul airport.

Iraqi forces advance towards Mosul airport. Photo: AFP

'Most dangerous phase' of offensive about to begin

About a thousand civilians, mostly women and children, walked out of southwestern parts of Mosul on Saturday and climbed into military trucks taking them to camps further south.

The United Nations says up to 400,000 people may have to leave their homes during the new offensive as food and fuel runs out in western Mosul.

The government is encouraging residents to stay in their homes whenever possible, as they did in eastern Mosul where fewer people fled than expected.

Aid groups warned that the most dangerous phase of the offensive was about to begin.

Several thousand militants, including many who travelled from Western countries to join up, are believed to be holed up in the city with practically nowhere to go, which could lead to a fierce standoff amid a population of 750,000.

Islamic State was broadcasting messages via mosque loudspeakers across the west of the city encouraging locals to resist the "infidels' attack", according to several residents.

Ziyad, a 16-year-old living in Hawi al-Josaq, told a Reuters correspondent he had seen foreign IS militants withdraw as Iraqi forces advanced, leaving only local fighters behind.

"They were really scared," he said.

"They were calling to each other and saying, 'Let's go'."

- Reuters

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