Iraqi forces were consolidating their gains south of Mosul on Tuesday ahead of moving into the city’s Islamic State group (I.S.)-held western half, a military spokesman said, as civilians fled along the front line to government-controlled areas.
The remarks came on the third day of what is expected to be the definitive push to rout I.S. from Iraq’s second-largest city.
The spokesman of the Joint Military Operation Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said that nearly 123 square kilometers — about 47 square miles — have been taken south of Mosul since the new push started on Sunday.
The troops now fully control the strategical hill of Abu Saif overlooking the Mosul airport as well as the Hamam al-Alil intersection on the main highway into the city, Rasool said.
Elite Iraqi forces have moved to join the regular army and the security forces on the ground, he added, but wouldn’t say what the next steps would entail.
Meanwhile, Iraqi state TV broadcast footage on Tuesday showing Iraqi fighter jets pounding I.S. positions, vehicles and personnel in Mosul’s western half. The report didn’t say when the airstrikes took place.
By noon Tuesday, about a dozen of civilians fled toward the security forces, holding up white flags.
“Come here!” Iraqi soldiers yelled from atop a defensive dirt berm to a group of men, women and children. “They’re scared,” said Iraqi federal police solider Hashem Ali, explaining that he’s seen I.S. target fleeing civilians with sniper and mortar fire.
A group of soldiers moved down from the front to meet the civilians and search them before bringing them back to base.
Iraq’s militarized federal police forces retook Abu Saif village, south of Mosul, from I.S. Monday night. Iraqi forces said they were targeted with at least four large car bombs in the small hilltop village, and as many as five other car bombs were destroyed with airstrikes.
Ibrahim Saleh, who fled to Abu Saif, said the small cluster of homes just a few hundred meters from the front line were still held by a handful of I.S. fighters. He said he fled after an airstrike destroyed his brother’s home and the water his family stockpiled began to run low.
Once he reached Iraqi troops with about a dozen other people he began trying to call his wife and two children who he had left behind.
“I was afraid it would be too dangerous for them,” Saleh, 27, explained. He said he didn’t know if I.S. fighters would target him as he crossed or if the field was rigged with explosives.
Iraqi forces said Abu Saif was almost completely empty when they retook it, but as they push toward western Mosul they will begin encountering more civilians that will make it more difficult to use artillery and airstrikes to clear territory.
Consolidating the newest gains lays the groundwork for the operation’s next stage: entering Mosul’s more urban neighborhoods with old and narrow streets. A densely built-up area with a population of up to 750,000 people, it will likely contain booby traps and roadside bombs.
Mosul, which is now the last I.S. urban stronghold in Iraq, fell into the hands of the extremists in the summer of 2014, when the terrorist group captured large swaths of northern and western Iraq.
The battle for Mosul, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, has already driven the militants from the eastern half of the city, which is split by the Tigris River.