Iraqi special forces capture Mosul airport from ISIL

While claiming victory at the airport, the Iraqis failed to fully secure an adjacent military complex where heavy fighting still raged late on Thursday, Florian Neuhof reports from Mosul

Iraqi forces fighting to retake Mosul airport from ISIL fire a missile from a rocket launcher on February 23, 2017. Florian Neuhof for The National
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MOSUL AIRPORT // Iraqi special forces took control of Mosul airport on Thursday, putting them in striking distance of the ISIL-held western half of the city.

Since Sunday, the military has advanced on the city along the Tigris river – which divides the liberated east from the contested west – marking the start of the battle for west Mosul in a multi-pronged attack involving all branches of Iraq’s armed forces.

While claiming victory at the airport, the Iraqis failed to fully secure an adjacent military complex where heavy fighting still raged late on Thursday.

Artillery fire and air strikes pounded ISIL defences before ground forces moved in on their targets.

The village of Adbah, 5 kilometres from Mosul airport, shook from the deafening roar of missiles spewed from mobile launching systems, the rockets soaring out of sight in an instant before hitting their targets at the airport and the Gozhlani military complex.

Mortar batteries and howitzers joined in, while US special forces directed coalition air strikes from the front lines. The commander of US forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said on Monday that his soldiers had been moved closer to the fighting to provide more effective support.

On the road leading to the Gozhlani complex, where Iraq’s army was trained before ISIL took over Mosul in June 2014, black Humvees lined up in a seemingly endless convoy stretching down the winding road. Inside sat the fighters of Iraqi Special Operations Forces, five to a vehicle and guns at the ready.

ISOF, an elite counterterrorism force, flushed out ISIL from the east bank of Mosul in over two months of fighting, and are set to be the main force battling for control of the west.

The men, who have been fighting for three years to rid Iraq of the militant group, were relaxed as they waited to join the last great battle against their hated opponents, smiling and joking and casting condescending glances at a federal police unit stationed next to the road.

On Thursday morning, four ISOF battalions had descended on Gozhlani from two directions. Another stood in reserve.

As they advanced, other elite fighters rolled towards the airport’s runway. The interior ministry-run Emergency Response Division had massed in the village of Albu Saif before moving through the abandoned village of Yarmouk to reach the edge of the airport by 11am.

Two suicide bombers who raced towards them were swatted away, their torn up corpses left lying next to a shredded motorbike as the armoured vehicles of the ERD fanned out on the runway. By 3pm, they had taken control of the entire airport, according to Colonel Mahdi Abbas.

The airport is less than two kilometres from the city centre, and the ERD say they are looking to press the attack in the coming days.

“Tomorrow we will move again,” said Col Abbas.

As he spoke on the road running parallel to the runway, a column of Iraqi federal police thundered past, heading for the northern edge of the airport that borders the Hay Al Jawsaq neighbourhood. The federal police will secure the perimeter, allowing the elite troops to rest before they push on.

US-supplied Abrams tanks could be seen on the other side of the runway, where the 9th Armoured Division supported the assault by advancing on the greenbelt between the airport and the river.

With their every movement watched from above and by US spotters relaying their location to artillery positions and aircraft circling in the skies, ISIL restricted themselves to lobbing mortar grenades towards the airport from inside the city.

White smoke billowed as grenades smashed into the tarmac or into the soft earth on either side of the runway. The buildings on the side of the airstrip had been reduced to rubble, and rows of concrete blast walls tossed over. An occasional sniper round zipped over the scene of destruction.

West of the airport, ISOF was experiencing stiffer resistance. At 4pm, a huge pillar of smoke shot into the sky as a suicide car bomb detonated in Gozhlani – a sprawling complex that includes barracks, storage facilities and training grounds.

Civilians who had made it across the front lines at Albu Saif a day earlier told The National that many of the ISIL fighters in the area were Chechens, regarded by Iraqi forces as the group's most effective fighters.

For the elite counterterrorism troops, the day’s fighting was a reminder of the difficult battle for the east bank. It was also a foretaste of what to expect as they move deeper into west Mosul, where tough urban combat with a cornered enemy awaits.