Extremist fighters unleashed a deluge of bombs and gunfire on Friday on Iraqi forces punching into the streets of Mosul for the first time, forcing some units into a partial pullback.
Some armoured vehicles from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) returned from the streets of Al-Karamah a few hours after moving in and encountering fierce resistance from the Daesh group, an AFP correspondent reported.
“We weren’t expecting such resistance. They had blocked all the roads,” said one officer, as top brass considered whether or not to attempt a fresh foray.
“There are large numbers of extremists… It was preferable to pull back and devise a new plan,” the CTS officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some CTS forces remained inside the city however and there were at least five regiments involved in the operation launched on Friday, making it hard to gauge the extent of the pullback.
After daybreak, bulldozers and tanks backed by air strikes had pushed into the streets of Mosul from the east for the first time since Iraqi forces launched a broad offensive to retake the city on Oct.17.
The CTS’s “Mosul regiment,” which was the last to leave the city when the extremists overran it in June 2014, immediately faced “tough resistance”, commander Muntadhar Salem told reporters.
The gunfire was almost uninterrupted for hours and reports from the front crackling into CTS radios said Daesh had set up barriers and laid bombs all along the streets.
Air strikes by the US-led coalition had intensified over the past two days, despite the smoke from burning tyres set on fire by Daesh in a bid to provide cover.
They ebbed when the push on the ground got under way however.
The resistance came despite widespread reports in recent weeks that top Daesh commanders had left the eastern side of the city and crossed the Tigris river to regroup on its west bank.
An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Daesh fighters are scattered across the sprawling city, Iraq’s second largest, where a million-plus civilians are believed to be trapped. There has been an exodus of civilians from outlying villages this week but few managed to find a safe way out of the city itself.
Umm Ali could not hold back her tears when she spoke of her constant fear the extremists would take her young sons.
“They kept coming to our home. Sometimes they’d knock on the door at 10:00 pm,” she said. “They took our car, saying: ‘This is the land of the caliphate, it belongs to us’.”
Civilians seeking refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas east of the city recounted tales of Daesh brutality.
“We’re coming from the world of the dead back to the world of the living,” said Raed Ali, 40, who fled his home in the nearby village of Bazwaya.
In a rare audio message released on Thursday, Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi urged his fighters to defend the city where he proclaimed the “caliphate” in June 2014.
The public announcement he made from the pulpit of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al Nuri heralded the most ambitious and brutal experiment in modern extremism, a period marked by mass murder, attempted genocide and slavery.