Iraqi forces advance past Mosul airport, pushing into city’s west

As ISIS loses ground, questions remain about role of Shia militias in Tal Afar and fate of missing Yazidi women and children.

Iraqi armed forces stand on their US-made battle tank. As the army moves into western Mosul it will face stiffer resistance and its armored units will find difficulty maneuvering.  (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Iraqi armed forces stand on their US-made battle tank. As the army moves into western Mosul it will face stiffer resistance and its armored units will find difficulty maneuvering.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
On Thursday, the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville tweeted a photo of an Iraqi soldier holding a small piece of lettuce. “First greens since this started.”
On the other, east, side of the Tigris River, Majd Holbi, a local journalist, snapped a photo of a young woman guarding a checkpoint with an AK-47 assault rifle. On her back was draped the Iraqi flag, and around her neck was what seemed like a flag of an Assyrian Christian unit connected to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), a paramilitary force assisting the Iraqi Army in the Mosul offensive. It’s the little, symbolic things in the war on ISIS that tell us about the progress and complexity of it.
On Saturday, US-backed Iraqi forces pushed deeper into western Mosul, advancing in several populated southern districts after punching through the defenses of Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq a day earlier.
The fight against Islamic State south of Mosul
About 1,000 civilians walked across the frontlines, the largest movement since the offensive launched last week to deal the ultra-hardline Sunni group a decisive blow.
In Baghdad, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the first such visit in more than a decade between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite-led Iraq.
The push in Mosul comes after government forces finished clearing Islamic State from the east of the city last month, confining the insurgents to the western sector across the Tigris river.
Commanders expect the battle there to be more difficult, in part because tanks and armored vehicles cannot pass through the narrow alleyways that crisscross ancient districts.
But Iraqi forces have so far made quick advances on multiple fronts, capturing the northern city’s airport on Thursday, which they plan to use as a support zone, and breaching a three-meter high berm and trench set up by Islamic State.
The advancing forces are less than 3 km. from the mosque where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria in 2014, sparking an international military campaign to defeat the group.
Losing Mosul would likely deal a hammer blow to the terrorists’ dream of statehood, but they still control territory in Syria and patches of northern and western Iraq from where they could fight a guerrilla- style insurgency in Iraq, and plot attacks on the West.
US President Donald Trump promised in a speech on Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to roll out his plan to defeat ISIS, as Iraqi warplanes were bombing ISIS fighters on the Syrian border. Iraq’s Emergency Response Division has completed its assault on Mosul airport, clearing barricades of rubble and advancing against roadside bombs and mortars.
The last flight out of the airport had been before ISIS arrived in 2013, according to Rasha al-Aqeedi, a local analyst.
The Iraqi federal police, who are doing most of the fighting in the seven- day-old offensive, have not faced particularly stiff resistance. Part of this is due to the open country that allows their armored columns of tanks and Humvees to maneuver and lets the coalition aircraft target ISIS positions. In addition, the Iraqi forces are bolstered by hundreds of US and coalition special force operators who are operating closer to the front than at any time since the campaign against ISIS began.
Civilians who have been liberated appear oddly tranquil in the face of the momentous events they have witnessed. Photos and video show them coming out of houses, some with white flags. Others complained their sheep had been killed by mortar fire. Horses still wander the fields. Even though Mosul has been under siege since November of 2016, when PMU forces marched across the desert and linked up with Kurdish Peshmerga to the west of the city, the warnings of mass starvation and humanitarian catastrophe for the 750,000 civilians under ISIS’s increasingly tightening noose of control have not been realized.
This reveals some of the quiet truth of this conflict in northern Iraq. Many of the Sunni Arab civilians under ISIS are being “liberated” only in a narrow sense; they chose to live under ISIS and many of them cheered on the terrorists when they arrived in 2014. They oppose the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad, and fear the Iranian-backed militias, such as the PMU. In eastern Mosul, the civilians have been issued papers allowing them to move around. For them, the liberation may soon feel like occupation by outside forces, especially the more they see Shi’a flags of Imam Hussein fluttering atop Iraqi army vehicles.
Hundreds of the thousands of ISIS gunmen fighting to the death in Mosul are foreigners. They include Chechens from Russia, so many that some ISIS material is written in Cyrillic. A British citizen named Abu Zakariya al-Britani (the former Ronald Fiddler) blew himself up in a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on February 21.
A convert who had been picked up in Afghanistan by the US in 2002 and taken to Guantanamo, he had received $1.5 million in a legal settlement, but ended his life in Iraq smiling and happy in a video posted by ISIS, one of an estimated 850 British citizens who joined the jihadists after 2014. According to the Kurdish network Rudaw, Iraq’s counterterrorist agencies have promised local ISIS members leniency if they kill foreign fighters and desert.
Around Tal Afar, a city still under ISIS control to the northwest of Mosul, the mostly Shi’a forces of the PMU are struggling in largely unreported battles with dozens of casualties on both sides. This is a key battle for the PMU and its leaders Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amari. Tal Afar had a sizable Shi’a Turkmen population before ISIS arrived in 2014 and the Shi’a were forced to flee. Now they are back and in force.
The continued advance leaves questions about the fate of thousands of Yazidi women and children ISIS kidnapped in 2014, many of whom are still missing. It was in Mosul that ISIS operated an extensive and brutal slave market. If it is liberated without ISIS destroying evidence of its crimes, those searching for loved ones may have some answers.
Reuters contributed to this report.