Iraq takes town near Mosul back from Islamic State

  • 06/11/2016
Civilians flee from the Zahara neighbourhood on the north eastern edge of Mosul (Getty)
Civilians flee from the Zahara neighbourhood on the north eastern edge of Mosul (Getty)

Iraqi security forces have driven Islamic State fighters from the centre of a town just south of the militants' main stronghold of Mosul and reached within a few kilometres of an airport on the edge of the city, a senior commander says.

Lieutenant-General Raed Shakir Jawdat said on Saturday that security forces were in control of the centre of Hammam al-Alil, about 15km south of Mosul, although he did not say whether the militants had been pushed out completely.

The advance on the southern front comes days after Iraqi special forces fought their way into the eastern side of Mosul, taking control of six neighbourhoods according to Iraqi officials and restoring a foothold in the city for the first time since the army retreated ignominiously two years ago.

Another unit advanced further north up the western bank of the Tigris river on Saturday, Jawdat added. "Our elite forces have reached an area just 4km from Mosul airport," he told Al-Hurra television channel.

Recapturing Mosul would crush the Iraqi half of a caliphate declared by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque in 2014.

There were no reports of further gains in the east of the city on Saturday, and officers said the military was clearing areas it took in recent days.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, speaking on a visit to the eastern front, said he brought "a message to the residents inside Mosul who are hostages in the hands of Daesh (Islamic State) - we will liberate you soon".

Mr Abadi said progress in the nearly three-week-old campaign had been faster than expected. But in the face of fierce resistance, which has included suicide car bombings, sniper fire and roadside bombs, he suggested that progress may be intermittent.

General Jawdat said his forces had destroyed 17 bomb-laden cars which had targeted them on their advance north.

So far the army controls only a small part of Mosul which was home to 2 million people before Islamic State took over in 2014. More than 1 million remain in the city.

The United Nations has warned of a possible exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees. So far only 31,000 have been displaced, of which more than 3,000 have already returned to their homes, said William Lacy Swing, head of the International Organization for Migration.

"The assault on Hammam al-Alil targeted a force of at least 70 Islamic State fighters there, commander of the Mosul operations Major-General Najm al-Jabouri said.

He said some militants had tried to escape across the river, although others put up heavy resistance and the troops had thwarted three attempted suicide car bombings.

Iraqi helicopters were supporting the army, he said, backed also by jets from a US-led air coalition.

He said the jihadists were using hundreds of people as human shields, although it was not clear how many civilians were left in the town.

Many of the remaining militants were non-Iraqis, Jabouri said.

"The majority are foreign fighters, so they don't know where to go. They are just moving from place to place."