Iraqi counter-terrorism forces assemble in Bartella town, about 20 km east of Mosul, northern Iraq, on Feb. 20, 2017, preparing to participate in military operations to retake western Mosul. Iraqi security forces on Sunday announced the commencement of a new phase of offensive to drive out the extremist militants of Islamic State (IS) group from its major stronghold in the western side of Mosul, the Iraqi military said. (Xinhua/Yaser Jawad)
MOSUL, Iraq, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi security forces reached the vicinity of the international airport in western Mosul on Monday, as the troops are pushing closer to the city in a new phase of offensive to drive out Islamic State (IS) militants from its major stronghold in the western side of it, the Iraqi military said.
In south of Mosul, the federal police forces and Counter-Terrorism Service freed the hill of Albu Saif, just south of Mosul airport, after clashes with IS militants, leaving many of them killed and destroying a booby-trapped vehicle, a statement by the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said.
The recapture of the strategic hill of Albu Saif is crucial for the Iraqi forces, as the area will give the troops the ability to command IS positions in the southern neighborhoods and inside the airport.
In southwest of Mosul, the army's 9th armored Division and a paramilitary unit of Hashd Shaabi recaptured the villages of Lazaga and Sahaji, after sporadic clashes with IS militants, killing many of them and destroying three car bombs, the statement said.
The troops' advance toward Mosul came after the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Sunday the start of an offensive to drive the extremist militants out of the western side of Mosul, locally known as the right bank of Tigris River which bisects the city.
"We announce the start of a new phase in the operation (We Are Coming Nineveh) to liberate the western side of Mosul," Abadi, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi forces, said in a brief televised address, referring to the province of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital city.
Late in January, Abadi declared the liberation of the eastern side of Mosul, or the left bank of Tigris, after more than 100 days of fighting against IS militants.
However, the western side of Mosul, with its narrow streets and a heavy population of between 750,000 and 800,000, appears to be a bigger challenge to the Iraqi forces, according to the United Nations estimates.
Mosul, 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when Iraqi government forces abandoned their weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq's northern and western regions.