Iraq commander says forces control Mosul-Tal Afar road
BAGHDADIraqi soldiers are in control of the road linking west Mosul with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-held town of Tal Afar, isolating jihadists in the city, a senior commander said on March 1.
Iraqi forces are battling inside west Mosul to retake it from ISIL in a major push launched on Feb. 19, but have also moved through the surrounding desert to cut the area off from Tal Afar and increase pressure on the jihadists.
“We control the road by fire,” AFP quoted Staff Lieutenant General Qassem al-Maliki, the commander of Iraq’s 9th Armored Division, as saying.
Al-Maliki said that while his soldiers have not reached the road, they can fire on targets on it, putting it under their effective control.
A team of U.S. soldiers has been working with the 9th Division for nearly two months, including during their push through the desert to the Mosul-Tal Afar road.
ISIL overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes and other support have since regained most of the territory they lost.
Meanwhile, ISIL fighters launched a counter-attack against advancing U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in western Mosul during an overnight storm, as the battle for control of the militants’ last major urban stronghold in Iraq intensified.
Explosions and gun fire rang out across the city’s southwestern districts in the early hours of March 2. The fighting eased in the late morning, although a Reuters correspondent saw an air strike and rebel mortar fire.
A senior Iraqi officer said ISIL staged its attack on units from the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) when the storm hampered air surveillance and on-the-ground visibility.
He said some militant fighters hid amongst displaced families to get close to the U.S.-trained troops.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.
Meanwhile, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said that between 12,000 and 15,000 ISIL fighters remain in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. military only provides periodic updates on estimates of ISIL fighters but in 2015 and 2016, the Pentagon put the number at between 20,000 and 30,000 in the two countries.
Townsend told reporters that among the many fighters killed in recent months are an “extraordinary number” of ISIL leaders, including many close to the group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“We have a specific campaign to hunt them and kill them,” Townsend said in a video call from Baghdad.
“Almost all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inner circle has been killed in the last six months.”