Khazer: Iraqi special forces charged into the Mosul battle on Thursday with a pre-dawn advance on a nearby town held by the Islamic State group, a key part of a multi-pronged assault on eastern approaches to the besieged city.
The addition of the elite troops, also known as counter-terrorism forces, marked a significant intensification of the fight for Iraq's second-largest city. As they advanced, attack helicopters fired on the militants and heavy gunfire echoed across the plains.
Major General Maan al-Saadi said the elite Counter-terrorism Forces advanced on the town of Bartella with the aid of US-led coalition airstrikes and heavy artillery on the fourth day of a massive operation to retake Iraq's second-largest city.
"God willing, we will take this town today," he said.
The special forces are expected to lead the way into Mosul, where they will face fierce resistance in an urban landscape where IS militants are preparing for a climactic battle.
The offensive is the largest operation launched by Iraqi forces since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is expected to take weeks, if not months.
The Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, who are also taking part in the offensive, announced a "large-scale operation" to the north and northeast of Mosul on Thursday.
"The operation will be in three fronts," the peshmerga said in a statement, and follows recent gains by the peshmerga to the east of Mosul and Iraqi security forces to the south. Peshmerga forces stationed on mountains northeast of Mosul descended from their positions and charged toward the front line.
They used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to fill trenches and moved armored vehicles into the breach after about an hour of mortar and gunfire at IS positions below in the village of Barima.
Military operations also appeared to be underway in the town of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. Thick smoke could be seen billowing from the town early today.
A day earlier, Bashiqa was pounded by airstrikes and mortar fire from Kurdish peshmerga positions high above.
The approaches to Mosul run through clusters of mostly abandoned villages where Islamic State militants have planted roadside bombs and other booby traps. Bartella, a traditionally Christian town which fell to IS two years ago, is believed to be empty of civilians.
"Our intelligence tells us the district is full of IEDs," al-Saadi said, referring to the homemade explosives Islamic State has planted in huge numbers during past campaigns.