Iraqi army Col. Omar Adl Ali and his men, after fierce fighting against Islamic State extremists, listened as their two-way radios buzzed with reports on the government offensive to retake Mosul.
Ali and about 280 soldiers from the 9th Division had fought in the Hamdaniya area southeast of the city, facing off against Islamic State snipers, rocket attacks and suicide bombers as they recaptured villages. They rested at a makeshift command post in an abandoned cinder-block house.
“We encircled the city and now there are some clashes,” Ali said Tuesday at the command post in Gwer. “Islamic State fighters are resisting.”
It’s not clear how much that resistance will slow the offensive to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. Islamic State fighters conquered the city two years ago like an army, staging organized attacks and commandeering military vehicles.
But advancing Iraqi troops face an enemy that has morphed into more of a terrorist network, hiding in tunnels and among civilians, broadcasting misinformation to wage a tricky urban war.
The Iraqi battle for Mosul is being waged from the east and south by troops including 18,000 Iraqi security forces and 10,000 Kurdish fighters, according to U.S. officials.
The Iraqis are pushing north along Highway 1 from Qayyarah, an Iraqi air base about 40 miles south of Mosul. In the east, the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, captured a string of villages around Hamdaniya, which is also known as Bakhdida and Qaraqosh, and held them as Iraqi forces moved up.
More than 100 U.S. special operations personnel are advising Iraqi and Kurdish commanders near the front lines and helping to direct airstrikes.
“It’s an ugly fight but we have seen very good progress,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters in Washington.
U.S. officials fear that Islamic State could employ crudely designed chemical weapons, namely munitions packed with sulfur mustard agent, against Iraqi forces.
Davis said Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which long have squabbled over territory and oil profits, are cooperating in the assault, which began Monday. The Kurdish fighters have captured Kurdish-dominated towns, but have agreed to allow Iraqi security forces to ultimately take the lead into Mosul, a largely Sunni Muslim city.
The Iraqi battle plan aims to overwhelm the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Islamic State fighters in Mosul, making them defend a 12-square-mile city at various points from much larger advancing ground forces supported by U.S. air power and artillery. The city is believed to have about 1 million people.
The Iraqis have left the territory west of Mosul open, where civilians and deserters are expected to flee. Few people have left the city so far, however, officials said.
Iraqi and coalition aircraft have dropped leaflets telling civilians to stay in their homes in Mosul both for safety and in hopes of preventing a massive outflow of refugees. The outnumbered militants are not expected to defend every neighborhood as the Iraqis advance.
Coalition warplanes carried out four airstrikes Monday near Mosul against Islamic State buildings, vehicles and bomb-making facilities. Two other airstrikes hit targets near Qayyarah, the Iraqi air base that U.S. forces are using as a logistics hub to push weapons and supplies to the front lines.
Clashes continued late Tuesday near Gwer in the village of Kani Harami, where Ali’s troops have been fighting.
The Kurdish television station Rudaw reported that the village had been recaptured by Islamic State on Tuesday. Iraqi officials disputed that account.
“We took the village, then Islamic State attacked us and they took it back. So we attacked them again and we held the city. It’s under our control,” Army Capt. Zuhar Habib said late Tuesday.
Islamic State released statements on social media reporting that its fighters attacked Iraqi forces southeast of Mosul with car bombs, recapturing the villages of Kabibah, Adleh and Ibrahim Khalil.
But Ali Dalagi, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, said late Tuesday that he had returned from the area an hour earlier “and everything is fine there.”
“Rest assured, all the areas near Gwer remain liberated,” he said.
Ahead of their advance, the Iraqi army dropped leaflets instructing civilians to put tape over their windows in the shape of an X to keep them from shattering, disconnect gas pipes, hide valuables, stay on low floors and tell children that any loud booms are thunder, Habib said. The leaflets also encouraged young men, once the army arrived, to join the fight against Islamic State.
He said civilians have heeded the army’s advice, distributed on leaflets, social media and television, to stay inside as troops advanced. As they rolled into town, troops saw another encouraging sign: scores of makeshift white flags, which civilians had been instructed to post.
But Iraqi troops also faced repeated attacks from Islamic State. Ali pointed to a Humvee with a shattered window. Two of his soldiers were killed in a rocket attack by Islamic State, and about eight were wounded.
Habib, an intelligence officer, said they were receiving reports from Mosul residents that when Islamic State fighters spot warplanes, they are going house to house, hiding among civilians to avoid airstrikes.
He said Islamic State used mosques and cars to broadcast its intention to abandon the city – but it was a trap.
“They were trying to see who was supporting the [Iraqi] army,” Habib said as he stood outside Ali’s command post. “They know there are people working with the army.”
He said commanders were not fooled by the misinformation campaign: “We know when Islamic State withdraws from a place, they do it secretly.”
Sitting on a fortified hilltop amid several dozen peshmerga, Gwer Cmdr. Jamal Murtka pointed amid the sandbags to windows shattered by Islamic State bullets two years ago when the area was besieged. Extremists also shot up peshmerga trucks, he said.
Now, equipped with better armored vehicles and coalition backing, “We have pushed Islamic State back from the whole Kurdistan border,” Murtka said.
Ali also credited coalition airstrikes with aiding the army’s advances. He listened for the buzz of U.S. drones, pointing up at the clouds. When two loud booms sounded, he pointed about nine miles away across the wide plain where sheep grazed to twin brown clouds looming on the horizon near metal towers and a cluster of houses.
“Airstrikes,” he said, smiling. “That’s a very good feeling.”
But then the radio at his hip crackled with bad news: Iraqi troops some miles away on the front lines had entered a house booby-trapped by Islamic State.
Had they been killed?
The radio crackled again, this time with what passes for good news: It was not a booby-trapped house, but rather another Islamic State suicide bomber detonating explosives. Iraqi troops were unscathed.
The colonel looked at the captain, relieved. Moments later they would receive orders to advance another three miles toward Mosul.
“We are moving forward step by step,” Habib said.
Ali responded: “Until we get to our target.”
Special correspondents Nabih Bulos and Wael Rasoul in Irbil, Iraq, and Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.