BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces backed by the U.S.-led international coalition fought their way Thursday into a sprawling military base outside of Mosul and onto the grounds of the city’s airport, taking control of the runway amid fierce exchanges of fire with Islamic State group militants.
The two-pronged advance is part of a major assault that started earlier this week to drive IS from the western half of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city
Iraqi federal police units, backed by regular army forces, entered the airport Thursday morning, according to two police officials who said heavy clashes were underway hours later with IS militants hunkered down inside several airport buildings.
The officials said coalition troops were with the advancing forces, though they didn’t specify the nationalities of the foreign forces. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Private broadcaster Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen aired live footage from the Mosul airport perimeter, showing a military helicopter buzzing overheard and firing at IS positions as gunfire rattled.
By early afternoon, federal police commander Maj. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat told Iraqi state TV that his troops have control of “more than half” of the airport complex. Jawdat added that about 200 families were evacuated to safe areas in government-controlled areas.
Separately, Iraqi special forces entered the Ghazlani military base next to the airport on the southern edge of the city, the spokesman of the Joint Military Operation Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, told the AP.
Rasool said heavy clashes were underway inside the base. He did not provide more details.
On Sunday, after weeks of preparations, Iraqi forces officially launched the operation to take Mosul’s western half, with the Iraqi regular army and federal police forces taking part in the initial push. Since then, the military says they have retaken some 120 square kilometers — nearly 50 square miles — south of the city.
Thursday marked the first time the Iraqi special forces, which played a key role in securing the eastern half of the city, joined the fight for western Mosul.
“The counterterrorism forces will be an additional force, which will expedite the liberation of Mosul’s western side,” Rasool said.
Also on Thursday, another counterterrorism unit captured a key village southwest of Mosul from where Islamic State group snipers and shelling had been slowing the government offensive, Rasool said. IS had used Tell al-Rayan to position snipers and fire off rockets and mortar rounds to derail the advance of the Iraqi troops, he said.
Another special forces officer said IS targeted the advancing troops with a suicide car bomb and dozens of bombs dropped from a drone. The officer, who also condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the media, said his troops sustained at least a dozen casualties, but many were light injuries.
Making up for a lack of fighters, IS militants are increasingly relying on modified commercial drones to guide suicide car bombers to their targets and to launch small-scale airstrikes on Iraqi forces.
Among those who fled the fighting was Hamad Khalaf, who walked out of Maamoun neighborhood south of Mosul along with his wife and four children as convoys of Iraqi vehicles passed by.
“There are many injured still inside,” said a dust-covered Khalaf of his neighborhood south of Mosul.
“We’ve been walking since the morning,” his wife Badriya said as she held her 1 ½-year-old daughter. A few meters behind them a mortar fired from inside Mosul hit a nearby hill.
In January, Iraqi authorities declared the eastern half of Mosul “fully liberated” from IS. The battle for western Mosul, the extremist group’s last major urban bastion in Iraq, is expected to be most daunting yet.
The streets are older and narrower in the western section of the city, stretching west from the Tigris River that divides Mosul into the eastern and western half. The dense urban environment will likely force Iraqi soldiers to leave the relative safety of their armored vehicles. The presence of up to 750,000 civilians also poses a challenge.
Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq. But the Sunni militant group has since consistently lost territory as the U.S.-led coalition proved to be critical for Iraqi government efforts to claw back territory lost to the extremists.
IS has suffered losses in Syria as well: Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces seized the center of the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab on Thursday, breaking a weeks-long deadlock between the two sides at the periphery of the town, Turkey’s state news agency and opposition activists said. The northern Syrian town in Aleppo province is one of the militants’ last urban strongholds in Syria west of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital.
Also part of the Mosul battle but on its fringes, are government-sanctioned paramilitary forces, made up mainly of Shiite militiamen.
The militias this week launched their own new push to capture IS-held villages west of Mosul. The efforts by the militias, an umbrella group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are likely coordinated with government efforts.
The capture of Mosul International Airport and the adjacent Ghazlani base would be a major boost for the Iraqi forces in the fight for western Mosul. The Shiite militias already hold a small airport outside Tal Afar, a city located west of Mosul toward the Syrian border.