Iraqi troops faced stiff resistance Saturday from Islamic State militants as they pushed deeper into eastern Mosul, backed by aerial support from the U.S.-led international coalition, a senior military commander said.
At dawn, troops moved into the Muharabeen and Ulama neighborhoods after fully liberating the adjacent Tahrir neighborhood on Friday, said Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces. Al-Aridi said IS militants were fighting back with snipers, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds.
Thick black columns of smoke were seen billowing from the two areas, while dozens of civilians were seen fleeing to government-controlled areas. Shortly before noon, a suicide bomber emerged from a house in the Tahrir neighborhood and attacked security forces, wounding four troops. Another suicide car bomber hit the troops in Aden neighborhood afternoon, killing a soldier and wounding three others.
Late on Friday, a group of IS militants attacked the village of Imam Gharbi south of Mosul, controlling most of it for hours before airstrikes from the U.S.-led international coalition were called in, an officer said. The clashes and multiple suicide bombings left three policemen dead, including an officer, and four others wounded, he said. Nine IS fighters were killed, he added. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief media.
To the west of Mosul, government-sanctioned Shiite militias took full control of the Tal Afar military airfield Friday night, said Jaafar al-Husseini, spokesman for the influential Hezbollah Brigades. Al-Husseini said the clashes almost destroyed the airport and that it will be an important launching pad for the troops in their advance.
The extremist group captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, in the summer of 2014.
The offensive to retake the city, which was launched on Oct. 17, is the biggest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011. If successful, the retaking of Mosul would be the strongest blow dealt to IS' self-styled caliphate stretching into Syria. The Shiite militias are leading an assault to drive IS from Tal Afar, which had a majority Shiite population before it fell to the militants in the summer of 2014, and to cut IS supply lines linking Mosul to Syria.
According to the United Nations, more than 56,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the operation began out of nearly 1.5 million civilians living in and around Mosul.
In the heavily damaged town of Bashiqa, about 13 kilometers (8 miles) northeast of Mosul's outskirts, Christians rang the bells of Saint George's church for the first time to celebrate its liberation from IS, which was driven out earlier this month. Much of the town has been reduced to rubble from artillery strikes and air raids.
Parishioners, peshmerga fighters and Kurdish officials sang hymns and played band music as they walked in procession into the church, which was heavily vandalized by IS fighters. Men prepared a large cross to mount on the rooftop, replacing one destroyed by the extremists.
"The first thing they did was break the cross, we want to replace it and tell Daesh that the cross is still here and we are not leaving at all," said Rev. Afram al-Khoury Benyamen, using the Arabic acronym to refer to the group.
Bullet holes marked the walls inside the church courtyard, strewn with garbage and graffiti left by the extremists, including some of their names. Much of the church's inside had been smashed, with rubble strewn across the ground and holy inscriptions covered with black paint. In an upper level, pews had been pushed back to make room for cushions and carpet beneath a broken window that had been used as a sniper's nest, marked out by scattered spent bullet casings.
Broken brass instruments and a torn bagpipe from the church's boy scout band lay scattered across the site, with pills and syringes on the floor in one area. The church graveyard was desecrated, with graves broken into and tombstones smashed and painted over.
"It's good they're gone but how happy can we be — look at this mess," said 22-year old Youssef Ragheed, a drummer from the band who had fled the town when IS controlled it, but returned for Saturday's ceremony.