Iraqi military officials say U.S.-backed forces are facing stiffer resistance as soldiers push deeper into the western half of Mosul, the last stronghold of the Islamic State group in Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammadawi told the French news agency several elite units that previously recaptured Mosul airport were moving north toward the center of the city, where they planned to retake the Turkish consulate and other government buildings.
He said the troops are facing increasingly heavy resistance as they move further into the IS-held part of the city.
“Daesh [Islamic State] is using houses full of residents as human shields,” al-Mohammadawi told AFP.
The jihadists also have started lighting fires in the streets to disguise their positions and stretched fabric over Mosul’s narrow streets to prevent aerial surveillance.
The Iraqi Kurdish news channel reported Saturday morning that one of its war correspondents had been killed covering the fighting in Mosul.
“Prominent Rudaw war reporter and journalist Shifa Gardi has been killed in Mosul as she covered clashes,” the French news agency reported Saturday on social media.
Retaking the airport
The advances come one day after counterterrorism troops regained control of the airport in Mosul that had been controlled by the extremist Islamic State group since 2014.
The troops took full control Friday of the Ghozlani army base, and they have entered the Mosul neighborhood of al-Mamoum for the first time in months.
The Iraqi takeover of the airport gives its troops access to Mosul from the southwest and for the first time control of an area along the west bank of the Tigris River.
IS insurgents were pushed out of eastern Mosul in January but the militant group still controls the western section of the city, which is divided roughly in half by the river.
Little was left inside the airport, and what was once a runway was littered with dirt and debris. Other buildings in the airport complex had been leveled by Islamic State forces.
The Iraqi forces also seized an Islamic State weapons storage warehouse, as well its one-time headquarters and barracks.
But the advance to retake the remainder of western Mosul may take some time. It took three months for Iraqi forces to seize control of the eastern part of the city.
International relations professor Houchang Hassan-Yari of the Royal Military College of Canada told VOA’s Persian Service the concentration of civilians in western Mosul will make it harder for Iraqi government forces and their coalition allies to retake that part of the city.
“Comparing this situation to the recent battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo, Syrian government forces and their Russian allies directly attacked civilians [as they retook the city last November and December],” said Hassan-Yari on VOA Persian’s NewsHour program.
“In Mosul, Iraqi government forces and their U.S.-led coalition partners have significantly restricted themselves in terms of the firepower they are using, in order to save the lives of civilians,” he noted.
Damascus and Moscow have denied targeting civilians in Aleppo.
U.S. forces have played a key role in the advance of Baghdad’s troops, launching airstrikes and providing advisers on the ground. On Thursday, U.S. forces were seen in the front lines of the attack.
The American forces are not supposed to be engaged in the fighting under Washington’s terms of the U.S. involvement in Iraq but a coalition spokesman, Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, said Wednesday that in recent weeks they have gotten so close to the front that they have come under attack near Mosul and returned fire.
Many of those civilians in western Mosul were forced out of the eastern part of the city during heavy fighting there last month.
Meanwhile, aid agencies are worried and preparing for the possibility that up to 250,000 people might flee Mosul in the coming days or weeks.
The U.N. refugee agency has said it is focusing its efforts on building new camps to house the displaced. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has completed eight camps and says it is planning to start work at another site south of Mosul.
Parisa Farhadi, Babak Azma and Sara Dehghan of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.