Iraqi forces say they have retaken 15 villages approaching western Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants, as fighting has intensified in the U.S.-backed forces’ campaign to fully liberate the crucial city.
Iraqi soldiers advanced toward the airport south of Mosul on February 20, battling in the face of reported stiff resistance from IS extremists desperate to defend their self-declared capital in Iraq.
On February 19, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced the launch of the next phase of the operation to rout the militants from their stronghold, an effort that began four months ago.
"We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul," the prime minister said in a televised address on February 19, referring to the province in which Mosul is located.
Backed by U.S. airpower and bolstered by Shi'ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Iraqi forces launched their initial assault in October to retake the city where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria in 2014.
But resistance from IS fighters was stiffer than expected, and the U.S.-backed forces succeeded in taking the eastern side of the Tigris River only after weeks of pitched urban combat.
On February 19, an army commander said forces led by federal police units retook the villages south of Mosul, including Athbah, leaving them within striking distance of the airport.
"We launched our operation at 7:00 a.m. [local time]... We are heading towards the airport," said Abbas al-Juburi of the Interior Ministry's elite Rapid Response force.
The Reuters news agency reported that Iraqi troops rushed through several villages, reaching Zakrutiya, about 5 kilometers south of the airport by the end of February 19.
Officers reported capturing a power station and killing several militants, including snipers.
Analysts said it was clear that taking western Mosul would be much more difficult than capturing the eastern portion.
"West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more-bloody scale," said Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.
The U.S.-led coalition carried out air strikes near Mosul on February 18, U.S. Central Command said.
U.S. special operations forces have been embedded with some Iraqi units, and thousands of American soldiers are in Iraq to provide logistical and other support.
"The U.S. forces continue in the same role they were in, in east Mosul, and the coalition forces are in support of this operation," Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on February 19 while in the United Arab Emirates.
IS militants seized large portions of northern Iraq and Syria in an offensive in 2014, stunning the Iraqi government and exposing deep weaknesses in the armed forces.
The militants are accused of numerous atrocities and have claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
Islamic State considers the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital, and it too is also under siege by U.S.-backed forces and others.