Iraqi forces gain foothold in Mosul after surprise new push

Iraqi forces pushed further into Mosul from the north on the second day of a new push to speed up the nearly seven-month attempt to dislodge ISIS, commanders said on Friday.

Troops aim to open escape routes for civilians trapped behind ISIS lines

Iraqi woman Lila Ayed, 37, whose husband was killed while two of her daughters went missing during the fighting in Mosul, crosses the Tigris river south of Mosul Thursday. Iraqi forces have opened a new front in the city's northwest, providing hope to civilians trapped by the conflict. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Iraqi forces pushed further into Mosul from the north on the second day of a new push to speed up the nearly seven-month attempt to dislodge ISIS, commanders said on Friday.

Footage taken by a drone operated by the Iraqi 9th Armoured Division over the northwestern suburb of Musherfa and seen by Reuters, showed the militants had scant defences there, unlike in other parts of Mosul where streets are blocked by anti-tank barriers and vehicles.

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria tried to block the troops' northerly advance into their de facto Iraqi capital with suicide car bombs and sniper fire, said Brig.-Gen. Walid Khalifa, deputy commander of the 9th brigade, in Hulayla, west of Musherfa.

His troops had killed about 30 militants and destroyed five car bombs before they could be used against them, he said. U.S. air support has proved vital for spotting suicide car bombs and for avoiding targets where civilians are trapped.

Smoke is seen as members of the Iraqi Army clash with ISIS fighters at a frontline northwest of Mosul Friday. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Brig.-Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the joint operations command, said the militants "didn't have time to make barriers, the advance since yesterday has been good."

1,000 families rescued

The U.S.-backed Iraqi forces' new foothold aims to open escape routes for the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped behind ISIS lines and, in turn, help troops' progress.

Rasool said Iraqi forces rescued 1,000 families on Thursday. However, U.S. Army Lt.-Col. James Browning, the partnered adviser to the 9th, said the militants had tried to keep some streets open in order to use suicide car bombs.

ISIS was probably expecting the attack, he said, "but they can't defend everywhere."

Only two months ago, the militants would be firing 200 rockets or mortars at Iraqi forces in Mosul on any given day, Browning said, but in the past two days it dropped to about 30.

"When you open up more fronts it becomes harder for [ISIS] to be able to defend. There are certainly some challenges. There are defences in place," he told Reuters.

White flag

ISIS had taken up positions in the homes of civilians in Musherfa, said one man who came out of Mosul carrying his handicapped son. "They knocked on our door but we did not open it. When the army came we raised the white flag," he said.

He was among several dozen people walking out of Musherfa with the full beard that ISIS makes men grow in places where it holds power.

Displaced Iraqis cross the Tigris river by a military boat after the bridge was temporarily closed. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

The 9th Armoured Division and the Interior Ministry's Rapid Response units are aiming for the Tigris river bank to complete their encirclement of the ISIS-held Old City centre.

Their progression should help the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and Interior Ministry Federal Police troops who are painstakingly advancing from the south.

The militants are now besieged in the northwestern corner of Mosul which includes the historic Old City, the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, and its landmark leaning minaret where their black flag has been flying since June 2014.

Dismantling the 'caliphate'

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a "caliphate" spanning parts of Syria and vast swathes of Iraqi territory from the pulpit of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque nearly three years ago.

The Iraqi army said on April 30 that it aimed to complete the battle for Mosul, the largest city to have fallen under ISIS control, in both Iraq and Syria, this month.

However, even defeat in Mosul would not be the end of the hardline Sunni group, which still controls parts of Syria and large amounts of Iraqi territory near the Syrian border.