BAGHDAD, Feb 23 — Iraqi forces today stormed Mosul airport and looked poised to fully retake it from the Islamic State group, the latest landmark in a four-month-old offensive to recapture the city.
The massive operation, Iraq’s largest in years, has involved tens of thousands of security personnel and could yet last several more weeks or months. Here are some facts:
Where are the Iraqi forces?
Elite forces from the interior ministry’s Rapid Response units stormed Mosul airport after a lightning push through some of the open areas south of the city.
They were followed by forces from the federal police. They were met with limited resistance from the jihadists but have yet to fully secure all parts of the sprawling airport compound.
Elite forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service simultaneously attacked further to the west and advanced towards the Ghazlani military base, where some of them were stationed before IS seized the city in 2014.
Meanwhile, Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) paramilitaries continued to clear desert areas further west and to tighten the noose around Tal Afar, a large town still under IS control.
They have cut the road between Mosul and Tal Afar, as well as IS’s supply lines to Syria.
Iraqi forces are receiving substantial air support from the US-led coalition as well as from Iraqi army aviation helicopters.
US coalition advisers were seen on the front lines Thursday as Iraqi forces advanced on the airport.
What to expect in west Mosul?
Control of the airport will set the stage for elite forces to breach the city limits on the west bank.
Iraqi forces could also attempt to punch into the densely populated city’s western side from a number of other directions, including by throwing pontoon bridges across the river from the east bank they have already retaken.
The battle in west Mosul could be even tougher than on the eastern side, owing to the narrow streets of the Old City that are impassable for many military vehicles and to the presumed higher level of support for the jihadists among the population there.
A senior US intelligence official said Monday that west Mosul was defended by an estimated 2,000 IS fighters, which suggests the group suffered heavy losses in the east since the launch of the Mosul battle when its strength there was estimated at 5,000 to 7,000 men.
A US-led coalition supporting the war on IS in Iraq and Syria has dropped more than 10,000 munitions on IS targets since the operation began on October 17. It also has special forces on the ground advising Iraqi fighters.
How are civilians affected?
While some civilians died and others were used as human shields by IS during the offensive on east Mosul, a feared exodus of unprecedented proportions did not materialise, with about three quarters of the east bank’s population remaining in their homes during the fighting.
Around 200,000 fled their homes since the Mosul operation was launched and around a fourth of them have already returned.
The aid community has warned however that the push on the west bank could yet trigger mass displacement and relief workers are scrambling to build new camps around Mosul.
It also fears that a protracted siege of holdout jihadists in west Mosul could leave an estimated 750,000 civilians facing starvation there.
Save the Children says 350,000 of them are children. — AFP