Iraqi troops in fierce battle with IS at Mosul airport

Smoke and dust rise as Iraqi forces attack Mosul airport during an offensive to retake it from Islamic State militants. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Smoke and dust rise as Iraqi forces attack Mosul airport during an offensive to retake it from Islamic State militants. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Backed by the international coalition, Iraqi forces yesterday fought their way into a sprawling military base outside Mosul and on to the grounds of the city’s airport, taking control of the runway amid fierce exchanges of fire with Islamic State militants.

The two-pronged advance is part of a major assault that started earlier this week to drive the IS from the western half of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city

Police officials said that the Iraqi federal police units, backed by regular army forces, entered the airport yesterday morning, with heavy clashes later, with IS militants hunkered down inside several airport buildings.

The officials said troops from the US-led coalition were with the advancing forces, though they did not specify the nationalities of the foreign forces.

Lebanon-based private broadcaster Al-Mayadeen aired what it said was live footage from the Mosul airport perimeter, showing a military helicopter overheard, firing at positions on the ground.

Separately, Iraqi special forces entered the Ghazlani military base next to the airport on the southern edge of the city, the spokesman of the Joint Military Operation Command, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said.

He said heavy clashes were under way inside the base, but did not provide more details.

Last Sunday, after weeks of preparations, Iraqi forces officially launched the operation to take Mosul’s western half, with the Iraqi regular army and federal police forces taking part in the initial push. Since then, the military says it has retaken about 50 square miles south of the city.

Yesterday marked the first time that Iraqi special forces, which played a key role in securing the eastern half of the city, joined the fight for western Mosul.

“The counterterrorism forces will be an additional force, which will expedite the liberation of Mosul’s western side,” Brig Gen Rasool said.

In January, Iraqi authorities declared the eastern half of Mosul “fully liberated” from IS. The battle for western Mosul, the extremist group’s last major urban bastion in Iraq, is expected to be most daunting yet.

However, the streets are older and narrower in the western section of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River. The dense urban environment will probably force Iraqi soldiers to leave the relative safety of their armoured vehicles. The presence of up to 750,000 civilians will also pose a challenge.

Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq. But the Sunni militant group has since consistently lost territory as the US-led coalition provided critical backing to Iraqi government efforts to claw back areas..

Also part of the Mosul battle, but on its fringes, are government-sanctioned paramilitary forces, made up mainly of Shiite militiamen.

The militias this week launched their own new push to capture IS-held villages west of Mosul. The efforts by the militias, an umbrella group known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, are probably co-ordinated with government efforts.

The capture of Mosul International Airport and the adjacent Ghazlani base would be a major boost for the Iraqi forces in the fight for western Mosul.

The Shiite militias already hold a small airport outside Tal Afar, a city located west of Mosul toward the Syrian border.