Iraqi forces retake key village near Mosul airport

Iraqi forces retake key village near Mosul airport
Iraq's Rapid Response Division pounded the village of Albu Saif to drive out Islamic State militants, as forces bear down on Mosul airport.
3 min read
21 February, 2017
Iraqi troops react to an explosion as they clear Albu Saif village [Matt Cetti-Roberts]

Iraqi forces advanced into the southern outskirts of Mosul on the second day of a push to drive Islamic State group militants from the city's western half, as troops bear down on Mosul airport.

Iraqi federal police and the Interior Ministry's Rapid Response Division pounded the village of Albu Saif with heavy artillery for several hours on Monday morning, calling in dozens of airstrikes from coalition aircraft lurking in the sky.

Shortly after noon, ground units from the Rapid Response Division entered the village, encountering heavy resistance from IS footsoldiers holding out throughout the bombardment.

The Division, supported by US Special Forces and Iraqi air force helicopter gunships, had pushed through most of the village by Monday evening, though there still remained several small pockets of resistance.

Albu Saif is seen as a strategically important village due to its hill top location. The village looks down onto the River Tigris and beyond that, Mosul.

However, more importantly it is the final village before Mosul airport, which serves as a critical staging post in the Iraqi military’s plans to recapture western Mosul.

Although most of it is destroyed, a Federal Police engineering team are on standby to rapidly repair the airport infrastructure and runway in order for it to serve as a supply post for the western part of the city’s liberation.

LISTEN: Gareth Browne joined us
on the phone from Mosul on Monday

Under current plans, the elite Counter Terrorism Service (ICTS), who are currently massed in the village of Athba, to the west of Albu Saif, will not begin fighting until the airport has been fully recaptured by Rapid Response and Federal Police units.

ICTS units carried out the overwhelming brunt of the fighting to liberate Mosul's eastern half and are believed to have suffered significant casualties as a result.

This strategy comes as part of a wider effort to reduce the offensive's reliance on the ICTS, and so far appears to be working.

A spokesperson for the Rapid Response Division told The New Arab that they would begin their assault on the city's airport early on Wednesday.

[Click to enlarge]

Evidence of the Islamic State group's brutality continued to show, as many of the villages on Mosul's southern front, where fighting took place on Monday, had been forcibly emptied by the extremists, as they drove residents into urban western Mosul to serve as human shields.

The group's propaganda machine also claimed that one of the suicide bombers used in Monday's fight was the British fighter known as Abu Zakariya al-Britani, who was pictured grinning inside a car bomb in an image released on the group's social media.

Consolidating the gains lays the groundwork for the Iraqi troops' next stage of the operation: entering Mosul's more urban neighbourhoods with old and narrow streets, a densely built-up area with a population of up to 750,000 people.

In pictures: Exclusive photos from Mosul's battlefront
[Matt Cetti-Roberts]

It will likely contain booby traps and roadside bombs.

Mosul, which is now the last IS urban stronghold in the country, fell into the hands of the extremists in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State group captured large swathes of northern and western Iraq.

The battle for Mosul, backed by the US-led coalition, has already driven the militants from the eastern half of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River into the two sectors.

Fixing and translation services provided for this report by Makeen Mustafa.

Gareth Browne is reporting from Albu Saif, on the front lines of the battle for Mosul. Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth