The Iraqi military said on Thursday that special forces were closing in on “Islamic State” (IS) terrorists in the city of Mosul. State television reported that government soldiers had stormed the airport and a military complex in the western half of the city. Later, the army confirmed that it had taken the runway amid a fierce firefight.
“Our forces started a major operation early this morning to storm the airport of Mosul and the Ghazlani base to dislodge Daesh (IS) terrorists. We can confirm that the Mosul airport militarily has fallen and it’s a matter of short time to fully control it,” said Sabah al-Numan, a spokesman for the counter-terrorism service.
Some officials later told the Associated Press that some soldiers from the US-led coalition were amongst the advancing troops, but did not say which country they came from. On Lebanese television, live footage from the perimeter of the airport showed a military helicopter firing on IS targets amid blasts of gunfire.
At Ghazlani, heavy clashes continued into Thursday afternoon. But according to Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, Iraqi forces had been able to enter the base and hoped to take it soon.
The end of the “caliphate”?
Since successfully ousting the extremist fighters from eastern Mosul last month, the Iraqi army has sought to control the airport as a base for finally pushing IS out of the country’s second-largest city.
IS overran Mosul in June 2014, when a lack of troops and infighting among military personnel led to the abandonment of the city. Under IS occupation, the city has experienced a number of atrocities including ethnic cleansing of Christians, human trafficking mostly of young women, and the destruction of ancient heritage sites such as the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah.
A 100,000 strong coalition of government troops, Kurdish fighters and local militias, backed by the US airstrikes, has made rapid advances in retaking the city since January. If IS loses its territory in Mosul, that may well herald the end of the terrorists’ self-styled caliphate which at its peak straddled large parts of Iraq and Syria.
Taking the western half of the city is likely to pose more of a challenge, however, as its roads are narrower and older than in the east – soldiers will likely be forced to abandon their armored vehicles and fight in the streets.