Iraqi forces are approaching a key area in western Mosul housing government buildings as they push beyond the city’s airport and a nearby military camp, Iraqi officials said Friday.
They’re in the second phase of a months-long operation to clear ISIS militants from the key Iraqi city.
“Our forces are only 1 kilometer from al-Dawasa neighborhood,” Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jaudat of the Iraqi Federal Police told CNN.
The area is home to the city’s police directorate, courthouse, main military hospital, Turkish Consulate and the Mosul Museum.
Mosul International Airport and the nearby Ghazlani military camp on the outskirts of southwestern Mosul have been fully liberated, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said Friday.
More than 50 ISIS militants were killed and scores wounded in Friday’s operation Friday, Jaudat said. Iraqi forces also destroyed 25 improvised explosive devices and seized several weapons as they liberated the first residential neighborhood in western Mosul, he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi congratulated the armed forces on their victories against “defeated Daesh terrorist gangs,” using an Arabic name for ISIS.
“We will exert the utmost effort to rescue the civilians and protect them, provide safe corridors for their exit, receive and (transfer) them to the safe camps.” Abadi said in a statement from his media office.
The International Rescue Committee warned this part of the operation could be the “most dangerous phase” for civilians as Iraqi troops seek to secure densely populated areas amid ISIS resistance.
“This will be a terrifying moment for the 750,000 people still in the west of the city, and there is a real danger that the battle will be raging around them for weeks and possibly months to come,” said Jason Kajer, the Iraq acting country director for the humanitarian group.
“Everything must be done to keep civilians out of the firing line, and as Iraqi forces reach individual neighborhoods, people must be given the opportunity to escape the city safely.”
ISIS militants use tunnels to escape
On Sunday, Iraqi forces launched a new bid to retake the western parts of the city after declaring the east had been liberated last month.
The east and west is divided by the Tigris River, and US-led coalition airstrikes have damaged all five bridges connecting the two sides in an effort to contain the militants in the west.
A CNN crew near the airport reported an intense bombardment Friday on ISIS targets in the southern suburbs.
All day, attack helicopters have been firing missiles and heavy machine guns into the city, the crew said. A group of American spotters was providing targeting information to the helicopters. Iraqi troops could also be seen heading toward the front line.
The firepower seems more intense than when Iraqi forces moved into eastern Mosul last year, the crew said.
Iraqi flags are now flying atop the buildings of the strategic Ghazlani military base near the airport, Col. Mohamad Bayzani said, quoting a statement issued on behalf of the Iraqi forces commander in Nineveh, Gen. Abdul Amir Rasheed Yarallah.
Militants used tunnels to “escape” from western Mosul when Iraqi security forces stormed the camp Friday, an Iraqi special forces officer told CNN.
Iraqi jets target ISIS
On Friday morning, Iraqi F16 fighter jets also conducted strikes on ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq for the first time.
The strikes were carried out on the order of the Iraqi Prime Minister, according to statements from his office and the Joint Operation Command. They were in response to this month’s devastating car bomb attacks in Baghdad’s al-Bayaa and al-Habibiya neighborhoods that killed scores of people.
The airstrikes destroyed ISIS bases in the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal and Husaiba in Iraq’s western Anbar province, the statements said.
Full control of Mosul airport
Iraqi forces secured the airport in Mosul overnight Thursday. The airport was largely destroyed by ISIS forces since its seizure in 2014.
Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, congratulated Iraq on its victory.
“Congratulations to Iraqi forces for completing complex maneuver ops to secure #Mosul airport from #ISIS terrorists,” he tweeted. “#ISIS is now trapped.”
British Major Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, offered a more muted assessment of the situation on the ground, telling CNN’s Christiane Amanpour the airport looks “reasonably well-secured.”
“It’s been a really good day,” said Jones, speaking Thursday from Baghdad. “The Iraqis are on the airfield.”
A CNN crew saw piles of rubble littering the runway, which ISIS placed there to prevent anyone using the airport.
Iraqi Federal Police and rapid response forces, backed by drones and heavy artillery, advanced from several positions to storm the airport, Jaudat said in a statement.
Forces took the airport in a few hours. But the push to retake western Mosul is expected to take some time — it took more than three months to wrest the city’s east from ISIS’ control.
The offensive to take Mosul back began in October in an extraordinary union of Iraqi troops and militia representing minority ethnic and religious groups that have often stood on opposing sides in Iraq’s history.