Iraqi forces preparing advance on south Mosul

(Reuters) – Iraqi security forces are preparing to advance toward Mosul airport on the city’s southern edge to increase pressure on Islamic State militants fighting troops who breached their eastern defenses, officers said on Thursday.

The rapid response forces, part of a coalition seeking to crush the jihadists in the largest city under their control in Iraq or Syria, took the town of Hammam al-Alil, just over 15 km (10 miles) south of Mosul, on Monday.

Officers say they plan to resume their advance north, up the western bank of the Tigris River towards the city of 1.5 million people who have lived under the ultra-hardline Sunni Islamists for more than two years.

 More than three weeks after the U.S.-backed campaign to retake Mosul was launched, the city is almost surrounded by the coalition of nearly 100,000 fighters. But troops have entered only a handful of neighborhoods in the east of the city.

“We need to put wider pressure on the enemy in different areas,” said Major-General Thamer al-Husseini, commander of the elite police unit which is run by the Shi’ite-controlled Interior Ministry.

He said operations would resume within two days.

Lieutenant-Colonel Dhiya Mizhir said the target was an area overlooking Mosul airport, which has been rendered unusable by Islamic State to prevent attackers using it as a staging post for their offensive.

Army officers told Reuters in September the militants had moved concrete blast walls onto the runway to prevent planes from landing there.

Satellite pictures released by intelligence firm Stratfor also showed they had dug deep trenches in the runways and destroyed buildings to ensure clear lines of sight for defenders and to prevent advancing forces from using hangars or other facilities.

On the southern front, security forces took cover behind a mound of earth and fired at Islamic State positions from armored gun turrets.

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