Iraqi special forces and Kurdish peshmerga are reporting significant gains in their joint assault on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul. They are backed by attack helicopters, artillery and US jets.
The Kurdish troops descended from their positions in the mountains near Mosul, filling in defensive trenches and moving armored vehicles from the northeast on Thursday. The peshmerga said they were attacking the "Islamic State" (IS) from three different fronts, hoping to "secure control of strategic areas" near the occupied city.
At the same time, around 1,000 elite Iraqi troops moved on the nearby town of Bartella from the east. The convoy engaged IS in an intense gun battle some 15 kilometers (9 miles) away from Mosul. Iraqi artillery and helicopters were providing support to the special forces, with US-led air strikes targeting the IS positions.
"God willing, we will take this town today," special forces commander General Maan al-Saadi said of the attack on Bartella, a traditionally Christian settlement IS seized in 2014.
IS launched at least four suicide attacks on the special forces during the Thursday battle, using car bombs.
IS sends spy drones
The Kurdish offensive would "tighten the noose" around the IS troops, said the General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan Region.
On Thursday, Kurdish fighters shot down two small IS drones. The terror group uses the devices for spying as well as to carry remote-controlled bombs. The drones shot down on Thursday were Raven RQ-11B models, originally developed for the US army, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
US defense officials said that they were deploying more anti-drone technologies, including signal-jammers, in the area.
Bracing for long battle
Iraq's elite counterterrorism troops are expected to take point in breaching Mosul. They have proven to be a much more capable fighting force than other Iraqi soldiers and militias, and played a key role in pushing IS from cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah.
However, IS has had two years to shore up Mosul's defenses and plant mines and booby-traps on approaches to the city.
"Our intelligence tells us the district is full of IEDs," al-Saadi said.
A total of 25,000 troops, including Sunni and Shiite militias, Iran and Iraqi Kurdish forces, and the regular army are involved in the offensive to retake Mosul, which is the last IS bastion on Iraqi soil. Over 100 US soldiers are also embedded with the approaching troops.
The campaign is expected to take several weeks, despite the US army estimating that only up to 4,500 IS fighters would be defending the city. IS leaders were reported fleeing from Mosul after the offensive started on Monday.
Mosul's future to be decided in Paris
Diplomats from US, Iraq, France and around 20 other countries are meeting in Paris to discuss post-IS plans for Mosul. French President Francois Hollande is personally hosting the talks aimed at deciding how to protect civilians, distribute aid and set up a system of government in the area.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi adressed the Paris delegates via a video call, saying that the assault was moving ahead "faster than expected"
"The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed in our campaign plan," Abadi told the officials.
dj/rg (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)