NEW: Iraqi security forces kill two ISIS suicide bombers in eastern Mosul
Entering the city is a significant breakthrough, but troops face enormous challenges
Iraqi forces entered ISIS-held Mosul on Thursday for the first time in more than two years, and are in a head-to-head battle with militants on the front line, defense officials said.
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahsin Ibrahim told CNN that units of the 9th Armored Division had entered the key city and that troops had stormed the neighborhood of al Intisar in the east.
Penetrating the eastern border has been the most significant breakthrough in the offensive, which was launched two weeks ago to free Mosul from the militant group’s brutal rule.
Officials had warned that entering the city would likely trigger the fiercest fighting yet, and that the battle is expected to be fought “street to street,” or even “house to house.”
• Iraqi security forces shot dead two ISIS suicide bombers in al Intisar, the military says
• Troops combing the neighborhood have detonated at least six car bombs
• Heavy airstrikes and artillery shelling targeted northern Mosul, witnesses say
• Hundreds of civilians poured out as clashes intensified
• Coalition warplanes hit an ISIS convoy, a bridge, an IED factory and two tunnels, US members of the operation say
ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi rallies fighters
About 100,000 forces in an Iraqi-led coalition have taken part in the decisive push toward Mosul, freeing communities from ISIS control, village by village, along the way. US special forces have supported the operation and continue to take part in airstrikes over the city.
Battle for Mosul
But only Iraqi forces are entering the ground operation in Mosul, commanders say, a testament to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s claims that the battle for Mosul is at its core an Iraqi fight, and that sectarian politics must be kept away from the battlefield.
Counterterrorism forces have been on the city’s eastern outskirts since Monday but had struggled to push through ISIS snipers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide attacks and even boulders placed on the main road to the city to slow forces’ progress.
Forces made their push into Mosul after ISIS’ media arm released audio purportedly featuring the terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, attempting to rally fighters.
Addressing the estimated 5,000 ISIS members holed up in the city, Baghdadi said that “holding your ground in honor is a thousand times better than retreating in disgrace.”
Coalition airstrikes, meanwhile, pounded Mosul and hit an ISIS convoy, which included vehicles carrying some senior ISIS members. The convoy was targeted as it crossed the al Khames bridge in the city center, witnesses inside Mosul told CNN. ISIS shut the damaged bridge after the strike.
From the west, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – a largely Shia paramilitary force assigned the task of advancing west of Mosul – reported their forces had cut off the main access road used by ISIS to flee to Syria through western Iraq.
Witnesses inside Mosul have told CNN over the past month that ISIS fighters and their relatives have been seen on buses heading out of the city, presumably to the group’s de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa.