Buoyed after breaching the city limits of Mosul for the first time two years, Iraqi troops are engaged in hard-fought battles with militants to liberate the easternmost neighborhoods of the ISIS stronghold.
Iraqi forces have started storming the neighborhoods of al-Karama, al-Zahra, al-Qudes, and al-Tahrir, Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi, commander of Iraqi counter-terrorism special forces tells CNN.
Government troops struck ISIS positions early Friday morning, sending the militant group’s ambulances rushing to the scene to extricate their wounded and dead.
A CNN team on the outskirts of Mosul heard loud clashes, bombing from air support and artillery fire. The team also witnessed Iraqi Humvees racing towards the neighborhoods in eastern Mosul.
Military radio chatter suggested that snipers on rooftops, along with militants firing from positions where civilians are present, were complicating the fight back.
The Iraqi Army has also reported progress on the northern front, with the capture of areas near Tal Kayf.
However, Iraqi counter-terror troops got an early taste of how dogged — and bloody — ISIS’ defense of the city will be after encountering what one soldier told CNN was “crazy resistance.”
Three of the unit’s soldiers were killed and seven wounded when their convoy encountered heavy resistance just inside the neighborhood of Kirkokli.
The unit was met by two suicide vehicle bombs, and ISIS fighters emerged at close quarters with heavy machine guns and RPGs. The unit lost two Humvees and three others were damaged.
Iraqi military helicopters circled above the area, using heavy machine gun fire against suspected ISIS positions.
ISIS-launched mortars landed on residential areas of the city, killing at least seven civilians.
Civilians continue to leave neighborhoods on the outskirts of Mosul, despite efforts by Iraqi authorities to keep them in their homes. As they left, many said it had become impossible to stay because there was no water or food.
Officials had warned that entering the city would likely trigger the fiercest fighting yet, and that the battle is expected to be fought “street to street,” or even “house to house.”
More human shields?
One challenge the liberators are facing is differentiating ISIS fighters from civilians. The terror group is reported to have brought tens of thousands of civilians — mostly women and children — into the city to be used as human shields, a known tactic it uses to ward off airstrikes and ground assaults.
On Thursday night, in the town of Hammam al Alil, south of Mosul, ISIS militants ordered civilians, via the loudspeakers of mosques, to leave the town and head into Mosul.
The order for forced displacement came after the Iraqi military announced that its troops have reached hills overlooking the town.
‘We have new life’
As forces broke through Mosul’s border, the Iraqi army opened up a safe route out for civilians to evacuate from the front line in al Intisar, the Defense Ministry’s Ibrahim told CNN.
A CNN team on the ground saw hundreds of civilians fleeing on foot from the direction of Mosul and the village of Gogjali on the outskirts, risking ISIS’ booby traps and gunfire to get themselves and their families out. Many of them waved white flags to show they were civilians.
Hundreds gathered on the side of a road where the Iraqi military sent trucks and buses to pick them up and take them to a camp in the town of Khazir. The men were packed on the back of utility trucks while the women and children were taken by bus.
A woman wearing an Islamic niqab — to hide her face and protect her family members still in Mosul — described to CNN how ISIS would shoot at civilians as they fled.
“It’s very hard to describe our feelings right now. It feels like we have new life breathed into us — a new soul,” she said, holding her young daughter.