(Reuters) Western-backed Iraqi forces have begun shelling parts of west Mosul, residents said, preparing to open a new front against ISIL seven weeks into a tortuous campaign to drive the militants from the city.
Federal police forces, stationed a few miles (km) south of Mosul, on the west bank of the Tigris river that divides the city, have long said they aim to advance towards the airport on the southwestern edge.
Military commanders hope that by opening a second front within the city they can increase pressure on the few thousand jihadists who have deployed suicide bombers, snipers and militant cells against elite Iraqi troops in eastern districts.
Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, security forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and mainly Shi’ite paramilitary forces are participating in the assault that began on Oct. 17, with air and ground support from a U.S.-led international military coalition.
Mosul is the largest city under ISIL control and driving the militants out would roll back the self-styled caliphate which it declared in Iraq and Syria 2014 after seizing large parts of both countries.
The campaign entered its eighth week on Monday but militants still control three-quarters of the city, where around 1 million residents are living under increasingly siege-like conditions as winter sets in.
Speaking by telephone from western neighbourhoods, residents reported what they said was the first bombardment of the area.
“About 10 mortar bombs fell on the neighbourhood, coming from the south, as the Iraqi forces approached…during the past 24 hours,” a resident of the Mosul al-Jadida district told Reuters late on Sunday. “It has sparked panic among civilians because this is the first time it has happened in our area.”
He said the bombardment had led to a virtual curfew in the district, with people afraid to leave their homes.
“One of the mortar bombs exploded 100 metres from our house, killing three youths and wounding others,” he said.
In the adjacent neighbourhood of Mansour, a resident said the bombardment was an ominous development. “We’re worried there will be a repeat of the scenario in the eastern districts which have seen humanitarian disasters,” he said.
An Iraqi police source, speaking from the front line south west of Mosul, said police rockets or mortars were not yet within range of the edge of the city.
But a military source said French artillery forces, who are supporting the police units, had been firing in the south. The U.S.-led air coalition has also conducted some air strikes.