Why US forward air controllers are moving closer to combat in Mosul

SOUTH OF MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Closely supported by the USA -led worldwide coalition, Iraqi forces secured a series of cautious advances on Thursday, pushing into a sprawling military base outside of Mosul and onto the grounds of the city's airport, where they took control of the runway.

It received its first long-delayed batch of F-16 fighter jets in 2015, and Iraq jets have carried out airstrikes in support of their forces in Mosul.

More Iraqi people flee their homes amid military operations in western Mosul, a city in north Iraq, after the Iraqi government liberated the eastern part of the city in late January, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters here Friday.

Iraqi forces advance towards Mosul airport.

Leaping out of a Black Hawk helicopter, Townsend ran to meet officials at a federal police base at Hammam Alil, a village south of Mosul once known for its swimming hole.

Earlier in the day, Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the federal police forces, told Xinhua that the troops freed the airport after several hours of fierce clashes with the IS militants. About 200 families were evacuated to safe areas in government-controlled areas, he said.

However, another source within the Iraqi forces was less confident, saying that they had control of most of Mosul airport and the sprawling military base nearby. But he said decisions about how to accelerate the fight would include careful deliberation and consideration of the second- and third-order effects of US military action.

A special forces officer overseeing the operation said IS targeted the advancing troops with dozens of bombs dropped from drones.

The new stage of the offensive comes after government forces and their allies finished clearing ISIL from eastern Mosul last month, confining the insurgents to the western sector of the city, which is bisected by the Tigris river.

"That's dense urban terrain, more dense than what we saw in east Mosul in a place where they are well-dug in", the captain said.

The U.S. -led coalition has played a key role in supporting Iraqi forces with air strikes and advisers on the ground, and on Thursday U.S. forces in armoured vehicles were moving on the airport with Iraqi forces. At first, accounts of the airport takeover said there was little Islamic State resistance, but later there were reports of Iraqi firefights with militants encamped in airport buildings.

There are an estimated 750,000 civilians in western Mosul, essentially under siege by Iraqi forces, along with IS fighters.

The New York-based International Rescue Committee said the most risky phase of the battle was about to begin for the 750,000 civilians believed to be trapped inside western Mosul. While the move puts USA forces in greater danger it will likely make Iraqi operations more effective and ultimately reduce their casualties.

"We have attacked and fully control Ghazlani base, we have also taken Tal al-Rayyan. and we're attacking Al-Maamun neighbourhood", said Sami al-Aridhi, a lieutenant general in Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service.

  • Salvatore Jensen