Iraqi forces recapture key air base near Mosul

An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 by Al-Furqan Media allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Caliph Ibrahim, adressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the brutal jihadist Islamic State (IS) group that has seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria, made the AFP shortlist of most influential people of 2014. AFP PHOTO / HO / AL-FURQAN MEDIA
ISIS leader believed to be hiding in N. Iraq
01:58 - Source: CNN

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Iraqi paramilitary forces take airbase outside northern city of Tal Afar

ISIS attacked eastern Mosul neighborhood of al Zahraa after losing it nearly a week ago

CNN  — 

Iraqi paramilitary forces have recaptured a strategic airbase outside the northern city of Tal Afar, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces said.

Ahmed al Assadi acknowledged that militia forces have yet to extinguish some pockets of ISIS resistance inside the airbase, however, saying late Wednesday that mopping-up operations will continue for the next few hours.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command put out a similar statement.

The base will serve as a staging area for Iraqi Security Forces in their battle with ISIS west of Mosul, authorities said. Tal Afar is a predominantly Sunni city that used to be divided between Sunni and Shia Turkmens before ISIS captured it in 2014. It is about 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Mosul.

Mosul, Iraq’s second-most populous city, is ISIS’ last major stronghold in Iraq and the terror group is well entrenched there. The campaign to retake the city has raged on for a month, forcing nearly 59,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

An ISIS attack on a Mosul neighborhood previously declared “liberated” from the militants killed at least two civilians and wounded at least seven more people, including children, Iraqi army officials told CNN on Wednesday.

The officials said at least four mortars landed in the eastern Mosul neighborhood of al Zahraa, which was declared under the full control of Iraqi security forces nearly a week ago.

Witnesses also told CNN there had been civilian deaths and injuries from the attacks.

Video of the aftermath broadcast by local Kurdish TV station Rudaw showed several of the injured, including children with bloody wounds. Up to a dozen children are being maimed every day as fighting pushes into the city, according to Save the Children.

“Many children have been through two years of ISIS and were then forced to flee through a war zone, and some told us they have seen people shot and hanged,” said Aram Shakaram, deputy country director for Save the Children in Iraq. “Imagine what effect that would have on a child.”

The Iraq Joint Military Operations Command declared six days ago that its security forces had taken full control of al Zahraa as well as two other eastern neighborhoods – al Samah and al Malayeen.

Attacks by ISIS in areas previously cleared by Iraqi forces are frequent. These areas often lack water, power and medical services, according to the UN.

Fierce resistance

Iraqi forces have encountered fierce resistance as they battle their way into Mosul.

While the ISIS presence has started to wane in parts of the northern city, a number of residents told CNN they are disappointed with the pace of Mosul’s liberation.

They said people are increasingly fearful because of what they see as slow advances by Iraqi forces.

ISIS has fortified its positions and regrouped after the Iraqi forces’ initial push on Mosul, which was faster than current progress, residents said.

The Mosul offensive began almost one month ago.

ISIS emboldened by leader’s message?

Brig. Gen. Halgurd Hikmet, a spokesman for the Peshmerga, or Kurdish forces, told CNN on Wednesday that “for ISIS, Mosul is survival.”

Hikmet said he believes ISIS militants won’t leave Mosul but will continue to put up a fight that will only grow fiercer as the battle moves to the city’s west.

He pointed to the audio message purportedly from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released just weeks ago, which seems to have emboldened and inspired ISIS fighters.

Hikmet also reiterated the difficulty posed for Iraqi-led forces by the potential for civilian casualties among the dense urban population, saying the utmost care was being taken not to bomb civilians.

The terror group’s use of civilians as “human shields” is also a challenge because it’s often hard to differentiate between them and ISIS members, Hikmet said.

The paramilitary force said Tuesday it has intelligence that al-Baghdadi is somewhere between al Baaj and Tal Afar. The two cities are about 50 miles (80 kilometers) apart and close to the border with Syria.

Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahsin Ibrahim would not confirm nor deny that al-Baghdadi is in the area.

US-led coalition

Meanwhile, a military official said Tuesday that the US-led coalition against ISIS has pounded targets linked to the extremist group relentlessly since the Iraqi-led offensive began on October 17.

In four weeks, coalition forces have hammered ISIS targets with 4,000 bombs, artillery strikes and missiles, coalition spokesman Col. John C. Dorian said. They also have killed hundreds of fighters in the battle to retake Mosul, he said.

Nearly 60 vehicles equipped with bombs and more than 80 tunnels have been destroyed, Dorian said at a news conference in Qayyara.

Aid groups stretched thin

The Mosul offensive has exacerbated widespread displacement of residents in northern Iraq and placed heavy demands on humanitarian groups working to provide aid for civilians fleeing the war, Refugees International said in a report Tuesday.

Women and children scramble to flee the fighting as Iraqi forces seek to retake Mosul from ISIS.

Since ISIS began seizing territory across Iraq in 2014, 3.3 million civilians have been displaced. The Mosul battle is spurring more civilian flight, the group says. The International Organization for Migration says more than 56,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive.

More resources are needed as tens of thousands of families have no place to stay, the leaders of NGOs and UN agencies said a joint statement.

“With winter approaching, and temperatures dramatically dropping at night, families, many who fled their homes with virtually nothing, need heaters, blankets and other winter items.”

Save the Children reported that children who’ve been able to flee Mosul are showing signs of distress. The organization has set up tents to care for nearly 2,000 children with classes.

CNN’s Jennifer Hauser and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.