Wave of strikes as ISIS puts up tough defense of Mosul

QARAQOSH / ERBIL, Iraq – Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul faced stiff resistance on Monday, October 24, from the Islamic State (ISIS) group despite an unprecedented wave of US-led coalition air strikes in support of the week-old offensive.

Federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters gained ground in several areas, Agence France-Presse correspondents said, but the jihadists were hitting back with shelling, sniper fire, suicide car bombs and booby traps.

ISIS has also tried to draw attention away from losses around Mosul by attacking Iraqi forces elsewhere, the latest coming on Sunday near the Jordanian border.

Following a weekend visit to Iraq by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, American officials said the coalition was providing the most air support yet.

"One week into Mosul operation, all objectives met thus far, and more coalition air strikes than any other 7-day period of war against ISIL (ISIS)," Brett McGurk, the top US envoy to the 60-nation coalition, wrote on social media.

"There were 32 strikes with 1,776 munitions delivered" against ISIS targets between October 17 and 23, coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Agence France-Presse.

He said 136 ISIS fighting positions, 18 tunnels and 26 car bombs were destroyed.

Defense ministers from 13 countries of the coalition, including Carter, will meet in Paris Tuesday to take stock of the offensive and discuss possible scenarios following a recapture of the city. 

NATO defense ministers are set to meet in Brussels Wednesday, October 26.

The offensive, launched on October 17, aims to retake towns and villages surrounding Mosul before elite troops breach the city to engage die-hard jihadists in street-to-street fighting.

On the eastern side of Mosul Monday, federal troops were battling ISIS in Qaraqosh, formerly Iraq's largest Christian town.

Forces entered the town for the third day running but armored convoys around it were shelled from inside the town, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.

Artillery support

Federal forces also scored gains on the southern front where they have been making speedy progress, taking village after village as they work their way up the Tigris Valley.

On the northern front, peshmerga forces were closing in on the ISIS-held town of Bashiqa.

Turkey, which has a base in the area, said Sunday, October 23, it had provided artillery support following a peshmerga request.

The presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil is deeply unpopular in Baghdad and the Joint Operations Command on Monday vehemently denied any Turkish participation.

But Agence France-Presse reporters near Bashiqa said artillery fire from the Turkish base had been sighted several times since the Mosul operation began a week ago.

While an increasingly pragmatic ISIS has tended recently to relinquish some positions to avoid taking too many casualties, US officials said the group was mounting a spirited defense of Mosul.

If ISIS loses Mosul in Iraq, only Raqa in Syria will remain as the last major city it controls in either country.

"They have made a very good job of preparing their defenses around the city," one US military official told reporters during Carter's visit.

The coalition estimates the number of ISIS fighters defending Mosul – where ISIS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" two years ago – at 4,000 to 7,000.

The coalition's top commander, General Stephen Townsend, said Sunday he expected not all the jihadists in Mosul would "fight to the death".

Sowing confusion

"By targeting the mid-tier leaders, which our special operations forces and air force have done remarkably well, we have caused a lot of confusion" in IS ranks, he said.

"I think it's going to pay off in the coming weeks."

Seeking to divert attention, the jihadists have tried to hit back with attacks elsewhere, including in the remote western town of Rutba on Sunday.

They briefly seized the mayor's office, captured and executed at least 5 people – civilians and policemen – and still controlled two neighborhoods on Monday, army commanders said.

UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said in Amman on Monday that the UNHCR was preparing to receive 150,000 Iraqis fleeing the fighting in Mosul.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, called for an investigation into an apparent air strike that killed 15 women in a mosque in Daquq, south of Kirkuk, on Friday, October 21.

Russia has blamed the US-led coalition, which denied carrying out the air strike. – Rappler.com