NEAR MOSUL, Iraq — As dawn broke Tuesday, Iraqi forces found themselves so close to ISIS-held defenses in Mosul that they could smell the acrid smoke pouring off the fires set to thwart their progress.
Iraqi counter-terrorism troops, having taken an industrial district on the outskirts of Mosul from ISIS, are poised to enter the city, less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the enemy.
Iraqi troops also have surrounded the village of Gogjali, and are “squeezing” ISIS fighters from different directions.
Reinforcements for the offensive are coming from north- and south-east, joining the forces currently surrounding Gogjali, according to the Commander of Special Forces for Counter Terrorism Maj. Gen. Maan al- Saadi.
Iraqi armored divisions and coalition warplanes have been shelling ISIS positions inside the village.
CNN witnessed heavy clashes on the outskirts of the village, along with plumes of smoke from fires set by ISIS fighters in Mosul in an attempt to hinder counter-terror forces’ advance. Troops are now waiting for special forces to clear a main artery into the town, which will then facilitate the movement of reinforcements.
ISIS also has sent more militants to shore up its defenses in the easternmost Mosul neighborhoods of al-Entisar and Karama, al- Saadi said.
Since the offensive began, ISIS fighters have carried out mass executions of civilians, lit toxic sulfur and oil fires to fend of coalition forces, and used civilians as human shields to ward off air strikes. They are carrying out regular suicide vehicle bombings and witnesses have told CNN that they are rigging bridges and laying booby traps inside the city.
‘Cut the head off the snake’
The Iraqi Prime Minister struck an uncompromising stance Monday, declaring that the country’s army would “cut the head (off) the snake” and liberate those trapped inside Mosul from ISIS’ brutal rule.
“We are going to Mosul to free them from ISIS,” Haider al-Abadi told a reporter for state-run Iraqiya TV at the Qayyara airbase south of the city.
He also had a message for the estimated 5,000 ISIS militants holed up in the city: “There is no way to escape, either surrender or die.”
He urged the city’s beleaguered residents, who have suffered under the ISIS yoke since June 2014, to stay indoors. He also said they should resist ISIS-propogated rumors, and do what they can to prevent ISIS from destroying the city’s infrastructure.
He added that, for the first time, Iraqi forces would be fighting side by side with Kurdish Peshmerga troops and urged politicians to “leave (their) political differences aside.”
A coalition of around 100,000 Iraqi-led forces, including Kurdish troops and irregular Shia militia, have been fighting in an intense push toward Mosul since October 17 to end more than two years of the militant group’s brutal rule.
As they near the city limits the offensive is expected to take on a more bloody aspect — Iraqi-led forces are expecting fierce resistance and house-to-house fighting from the militant forces remaining in the city.
Al-Abadi would not give a time frame for the eventual liberation of the city but denied that the fighting had been halted. “What’s happening on the ground is the reality.”
Trump at odds with official assessment
For weeks, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has lambasted the coalition effort to re-capture the city of Mosul from ISIS, calling the undertaking a “total disaster” and saying the US and its allies were “bogged-down” there even as defense officials say they are encouraged by the progress being made.
The assessment puts him at odds with Pentagon officials, who said Monday that the campaign to reclaim Mosul was proceeding as planned and that so far anti-ISIS forces in Iraq are succeeding in their fight against the terror group.
His repeated criticism of the handling of the operation means its success could cast shadows on his argument to be the next commander in chief, while his decision to take on the Pentagon once again highlights the sacred cows he has been willing to slay during his unconventional campaign.
Advances from the east
On the eastern edge of the city in the town of Gogjali, witnesses told CNN that they could see Iraqi forces in open land nearby, and that families had begun fleeing their homes after hearing gunfire and explosions, as well as several airstrikes.
The witnesses said that there were around 40 ISIS militants in the area who had set up mortar positions. ISIS has completely blocked the main road entering Mosul from Irbil with concrete T-walls, they said.
Tensions inside Mosul appear to be flaring as troops get ever closer. Five ISIS officials, including the head of the city’s prisons, were shot dead by gunmen in a drive-by shooting near a market on Monday.
Witnesses in the city also reported further acts of resistance against the terror group Monday, telling CNN that unknown gunmen shot and killed four ISIS militants near their base at the al-Shaarein outdoor market in western Mosul.
The battle for Mosul is seen as one of the most significant in the fight against ISIS. The city is the group’s Iraqi stronghold and is considered the jewel off the group’s envisaged caliphate, or its so-called Islamic State.
The city is also near critical oil fields that ISIS has used to fatten its coffers, selling the resource illegally across borders.
When ISIS took Mosul in June 2014, it also took control of more than 2.5 million people, whom the group subjected to horrors.
There has been a mass exodus in the past two years, and today around 1 million people remain.