Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struck a defiant tone in a televised statement to the nation Tuesday, taking direct aim at the several thousand IS militants fighting coalition forces in Mosul. “God willing, we will chop off the snake’s head,” Abadi said on state television. “They have no choice,” he said. “Either they surrender or they die.”
His comments were soon followed by reports that a select group of Iraqi special forces had breached the outer limits of the ISIS-stronghold city, a major development in the coalition offensive to retake Mosul, now in its third week.
According to BBC reporter Ian Pannell, who is embedded with Iraq’s elite counterterrorism troops, they are facing “very stiff resistance” from IS fighters on the eastern outskirts of the city, who are using rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.
The select military squad’s incursion on the city’s outskirts — in the Gogjali neighborhood — on Tuesday morning marks the first time in more than two years that government forces have entered Mosul since IS fighters captured the city in June 2014. Beyond its geo-strategic advantages, the city holds symbolic significance for the terror group, as it is the site where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the group had established an Islamic caliphate.
“The special forces have stormed in,” Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces told AP. “Daesh is fighting back and have set up concrete blast walls to block off the Karama neighborhood and our troops’ advance.”
Tuesday morning’s incursion into Mosul follows two weeks of intense fighting in the towns and villages surrounding the group’s stronghold city in northern Iraq, with a U.S.-led coalition of Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga helping Iraqi forces clear the area of IS militants.
As the battle wages on, the chances of a humanitarian crisis increase as civilians trapped inside the city look to flee the fighting. Military and humanitarian officials have expressed concern amid reports that the terror group is rounding up civilians and bussing them to the city’s center to be used as human shields.
“ISIL’s depraved, cowardly strategy is to try to use the presence of civilian hostages to render certain points, areas, or military forces immune from military action,” said U.N. official Ravina Shamdasani on Friday.
Aid agencies estimate as many as 1 million people remain inside Mosul. A VICE News source spoke to some of them on Tuesday. “Yesterday, in the Mishrag area they told the families to get out of their homes as they [IS] were going to burn all the sulphur,” said Mosul resident Abu Yaser. “They told them to return in the afternoon, and children and adults stayed out. After it was burned and the smoke passed, the families tried to return to their homes, but ISIL forbade them, saying there was going to be a big battle in the area and that they should head toward Mosul.”
The threat to civilians was highlighted Tuesday when the Guardian reported that a U.S. airstrike killed eight civilians — including three children — from the same family, in the village of Fadhiliya, a few kilometers outside Mosul.