The fight against Islamic State is finally coming to Mosul, Iraq.
With Iraq’s prime minister vowing to cut off “the head of the snake,” elite government forces were said to have begun their assault on the city proper.
Iraqi special forces reported fierce clashes east of Mosul as they approached the outskirts of the city Tuesday.
Lt. Col. Ali Hussein Fadil who leads the Najaf battalion of Iraqi special forces, part of the Golden Division, said they were battling Islamic State along the eastern Mosul highway in the village of Gogjali, about four miles outside the city. He said Iraqi troops were fighting amid an area of factories, trying to secure the road forward.
“Last night, we made an advance,” he said, killing eight Islamic State fighters and exploding four of their vehicles.
The fight to retake Mosul from the Sunni Muslim extremists could involve weeks or months of brutal urban warfare.
This apparent new phase of the battle comes two weeks after the start of a long-awaited offensive by tens of thousands of American-backed Iraqi and Kurdish troops, tribal fighters and militias.
The coalition has been working to drive Islamic State out of towns and villages surrounding the northern city, its fighters dealing as they go with jihadist suicide bombers, oil-filled trenches and booby-trapped structures and bridges.
The leading edge of Iraqi forces, elite counter-terrorism troops reached Mosul’s eastern Karama district after penetrating the outlying industrial zone of Gogjali, Reuters quoted Lt. Gen Abdul Ghani Assadi as telling state television. State TV also reported that residents were rising up against the militants — something the coalition has long urged them to do despite the dangers.
A resident of Mosul’s eastern edge named Abu Mohammed told Britain’s Guardian newspaper by phone that Islamic State fighters had been putting up “intense resistance” in the face of the Iraqi troop advance on Karama. The reports could not immediately be independently verified.
Islamic State overran the city, Iraq’s second largest, in 2014, representing a major expansion of its self-declared caliphate extending across parts of Syria and Iraq. Retaking the city has already been costly for civilians trapped between battle lines and commandeered as human shields by the extremists.
Loss of the city would be a major blow to Islamic State but could trigger a flood of refugees — up to 1 million, by the warning of the United Nations.
News agencies quoted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi as saying troops were seeking to seal the escape routes for Islamic State fighters and commanders, and pledged to take the fight to the militants.
“God willing, we will cut off the head of the snake,” Abadi declared on state television, clad in military fatigues and speaking from the Qayyarah military base south of the city. “They have no escape. They will die or surrender.”
Times staff write Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report from Irbil, Iraq.
2:25 a.m., Nov. 1: This article was updated with information about Iraqi special forces moving close to Mosul.
10:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with news that the assault on Mosul has begun.
This article was originally published at 5:25 p.m. Oct. 31.