'Staggering' skirmishes as ISIS attacks advancing forces

These were the early indications of how dedicated and single-minded Mosul’s ISIS occupiers can be — and how bloody and grinding Iraq’s battle to liberate the city may prove.

Following swifter-than-expected progress in the advance on Mosul on day one, the diverse coalition of Iraqi Security Forces troops, Kurdish Peshmerga allies and thousands of Iraqi irregulars pressed forward with their assault Tuesday to liberate Iraq’s second city from two years of ISIS rule.

Turkish planes take part

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday that the Turkish Air Force has taken part in air operations in Mosul with the US-led coalition.

“Our air forces took part in air operations together with coalition forces. This is an answer to those that said ‘Turkey has no place in Mosul’,” Yildirim said, addressing a meeting of the ruling AKP in parliament in Ankara.

Ankara has been embroiled in a spat with Baghdad over the presence of 1,000 Turkish soldiers in Bashiqa in Nineveh province, northeast of Mosul, which has threatened to complicate the coordination between the two key US allies in the fight against ISIS.

Iraq’s government objects to the presence of the troops, which it says are there without its permission. The soldiers are there to train Kurdish and Arab fighters as part of an agreement between Ankara and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.

Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the same meeting that his government had told the United States that “Turkey will be at the table, Turkey will be on the field too.”

Operation ‘ahead of schedule’

Iraqi forces hold a position on October 17, 2016 in the area of al-Shurah, some 45 kms south of Mosul.

Progress was swift on the first day of the operation, as coalition forces advanced on the oil-rich northern city, retaking more than 75 square miles of territory and wresting nine villages from ISIS control.

Forces east of Mosul also secured control over a significant stretch of the Erbil-Mosul road, a key strategic route, the General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan Region said, while Iraq’s military declared that it had inflicted “heavy losses of life and equipment” on ISIS to the southeast.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday that Iraqi forces had “met their objectives” so far and were “ahead of schedule,” while US Central Command spokesman Col. John Dorrian said: “The noose is tightening on Mosul.”

Peshmerga forces are seen at Naveran front during an operation in Nineveh, Iraq on October 18, 2016.

For now, the fighting has been restricted to the villages on the city’s outskirts. But the going is expected to be tougher once the coalition reaches Mosul’s urban center, where ISIS fighters will await them with suicide bombs, car bombs and booby traps.

The 94,000-member Iraqi-led coalition greatly outnumbers its opponents and includes air support from roughly 90 coalition and Iraqi planes, although not all will be directly involved in the assault on the city.

But ISIS, which has been on the back foot in Iraq and some parts of Syria in recent times, has constructed elaborate defenses, including a network of tunnels, in the city. Up to 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, according to an estimate from US military official, however the terror group’s supporters put the number at 7,000.

ISIS ‘willing to put up a fight’

Even amid the swifter than expected progress, CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, embedded with a Peshmerga convoy outside the city, said he had witnessed “staggering” skirmishes Monday as ISIS engaged the advancing forces.

Dorrian said that most of the resistance had come in the form of mortar and small arms fire, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Suicide car bomb attacks and suicide vests were also used.

On one approach road, Peshmerga forces seeking to liberate a village on the outskirts of the city return ISIS fire. There is panic as an ISIS suicide car bomb careens toward their position, and rockets are unleashed to take it out. It’s hit on the third time of asking.

“ISIS is showing that it’s very willing to put up a fight,” Paton Walsh said.

Why Mosul is so significant

Since it was captured at lightning speed by ISIS fighters in June 2014, Mosul has been a vital stronghold in the terror group’s self-declared caliphate, holding strategic and symbolic importance.

The largest city under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria, it was the city from which the group first declared the establishment of its so-called caliphate.

Since then, ISIS has gradually lost its other Iraqi cities — Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja — to government forces, with the government’s eye ultimately on recapturing the country’s second city of Mosul, once a cosmopolitan trade hub of two million residents. Today, about one million are estimated to remain.

One of the challenges for the liberating forces will be avoiding revenge attacks on the city’s inhabitants from people whose families had suffered under ISIS.

Kurdish and militia troops have been ordered to stand down and allow only Iraqi government troops and national police officers to enter the city when the time comes, amid fears of sectarian retribution.

Galawish ali Amin, a member of the Nineveh Provincial Council told CNN’s Arwa Damon that while she was “very excited” about the liberation of Mosul, she was also “anxious about the next step.”

Galawish ali Amin, a member of the Nineveh Provincial Council, speaks to CNN's Arwa Damon.

“There are people who are going to have lost so much. Relatives, loved ones, homes. And people won’t always turn to the judicial system, we won’t be able to control everyone,” she said.

“There will be people who will want revenge. This will be the hardest thing, controlling those who want revenge.”

Ali Amin said the liberating forces also faced a challenge in being able to identify ISIS members from civilians, “and those who were forced to join versus those subscribe to their ideology.”

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Hamdi Alkhshali, Arwa Damon and Ben Wedeman reported from near Mosul; Euan McKirdy reported and wrote from Hong Kong and Tim Hume wrote from London. Kristie Lu Stout, Isil Sariyuce, Max Blau and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this story.

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