Iraqi forces enter Mosul for first time in two years, gunning for determined IS fighters

MOSUL, Iraq,  For the first time in more than two years, Iraqi government troops are on the ground in Mosul and ready to take on Islamic Statefighters determined to stand their ground in what’s been the terror group’s biggest stronghold.

An Iraqi Shiite militia force said the Islamic State has been cut off from access to a road leading from their stronghold in Mosul to their Syrian bastion, Raqqa. In this image, Iraqi civilians flee from fighting while the smoke rises in the background from burning oil fields which was damaged during the fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic state fighters, near Mosul on Tuesday. Photo by Murat Bay/UPI | License Photo

Iraqi special forces soldiers entered the less-populated eastern city limits on Thursday afternoon, and planned to establish a foothold there before attacking the urban centers of Iraq’s second-largest city.

The long-awaited showdown with the Islamic State is now at hand, after Iraqi and U.S.-backed coalition forces have been pushing toward Mosul for weeks.

Elite Counter-Terrorism Service troops took control of the state broadcasting facility in Kukjali after an assault on the eastern district, BBC News reported.

Combat is expected to be intense in the coming days, as both sides have pledged to fight. Iraq’s prime minister told militants this week to “surrender or die,” and the group’s leader told his followers to fight until their enemies’ “blood flows like rivers.”

Earlier Thursday, an Iraqi Shiite coalition militia said it cut off a road used by the Islamic State to travel from Mosul to its Syria stronghold of Raqqa.

Iraq’s government-backed Popular Mobilization Units on Wednesday said the Raqqa-Nineveh highway is cut off to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, Daesh and ISIL. The Shiite militia also said Mosul’s roads to Tal Afar, Ein al-Jahash and Aadaya are under its control.

“ISIS, your new destination is hell, not Raqqa,” the Shiite militia said in its announcement.

The Shiite militia force, also known as the PMU, has been working to capture territory west of Mosul away from IS control for about a week. The PMU said it has captured about 272 square miles of territory as it advances to the town of Tal Afar.

Due to Tal Afar’s ethnic makeup, the fate of the town about 28 miles west of Mosul is a “very sensitive issue” for the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyip Erdogans aid recently.

Erdogan said he does not regard the PMU’s involvement in Tal Afar and in the town of Sinjar “positively.”

Erdogan previously warned that Iraq’s Shiite militias should not be involved in the Mosul offensive — warning that Mosul’s Turkmen population could be targeted. Erdogan has also highlighted Turkey’s historical claims to Mosul in recent speeches.

Turkey on Tuesday

According to audio released by the Islamic State, the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, called on his militants in Mosul to continue fighting because “holding your ground with honor is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame.”

There were an estimated 5,000 IS militants in Mosul prior to the start of Iraq’s offensive to recapture the city on Oct. 17. The released audio’s authenticity has not been independently verified.

“Do not retreat,” Baghdadi purportedly said. “This total war and the great jihad only increased our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that this is all a prelude to victory.”

By Andrew V. Pestano and Doug G. Ware