MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi troops faced stiff resistance Saturday from Islamic State militants as they pushed deeper into eastern Mosul, backed by aerial support from the U.S.-led international coalition, a senior military commander said.
At dawn, troops moved into the Muharabeen and Ulama neighborhoods after fully liberating the adjacent Tahrir neighborhood on Friday, said Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces. Al-Aridi said IS militants were fighting back with snipers, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds.
Thick black columns of smoke were seen billowing from the two areas, while dozens of civilians were seen fleeing to government-controlled areas.
To the west of Mosul, government-sanctioned Shiite militias took control of the Tal Afar military airfield Friday night, said Jaafar al-Husseini, spokesman for the influential Hezbollah Brigades. Al-Husseini said the clashes almost destroyed the airport and that it will be an important launching pad for the troops in their advance.
The offensive to retake IS-held Mosul, which was launched on Oct. 17, is the biggest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011. If successful, the retaking of Mosul would be the strongest blow dealt to IS’ self-styled caliphate stretching into Syria. The Shiite militias are leading an assault to drive IS from Tal Afar, which had a majority Shiite population before it fell to the militants in the summer of 2014, and to cut IS supply lines linking Mosul to Syria.
According to the United Nations, more than 56,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the operation began out of nearly 1.5 million civilians living in and around Mosul.
The extremist group captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in the summer of 2014.