On the front lines: Mosul in sight

Story highlights

ISIS-held Mosul now seems tantalizingly close to Iraqi forces

On the outskirts, one town is eerily empty, another full of fighters

Forces to the east will now wait for comrades to complete stranglehold before final assault

Outside Mosul, Iraq CNN  — 

Through the haze and smoke, the brown and gray outline of Gogjali is just about visible. It’s an industrial suburb on the eastern outskirts of Mosul, just two kilometers (1.24 miles) from front line positions of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force (CTF), and it’s their next target.

The Iraqi units send mortar fire into the area every few minutes. In the distance they can see ISIS fighters moving between abandoned houses; witnesses inside Mosul say the terror group has moved vehicles into Gogjali; the assumption is they are packed with explosives and prepared to meet the advance of the Iraqi units.

Beyond Gogjali, Mosul’s most obvious landmark – its communications tower – seems tantalizingly close. The center of the city is just 7 kilometers from our position.

READ: Inside Mosul – tunnels, resistance and terror

A little farther east of Gogjali, the village of Tab Zawa is eerie – haunted by the brutal ghosts of ISIS. Their long, elaborate tunnels run through the town; the school where grenade practice replaced the curriculum is now deserted. They even left food behind, prepared but uneaten, before falling back to the outskirts of the city.

The front line is dust and volatility. Soldiers with automatic weapons scan the horizon from rooftops, looking for movement. They wear an assortment of uniforms; one was sporting a cap labeled “US Navy,” worn backward.

Occasionally, a truck will move behind a berm in the rolling land beyond. From behind it, ISIS fighters will fire toward Iraqi positions. About noon Friday, an ISIS mortar landed barely 100 meters from where we were taking cover.

The men have to be constantly alert. On many occasions since the offensive against ISIS began on October 17, the militants have surprised advancing forces with sniper attacks and vehicle-borne suicide bombs that emerge in a cloud of dust, barreling toward front line positions.

As exchanges of fire erupt and subside, we take cover behind half-built houses and cement walls. This is a poor, ramshackle place surrounded by farmland and desert. Its houses are squat, unadorned concrete buildings, but its inhabitants are gone – having fled to the relative safety of transit camps some 30 kilometers behind the front.

They may have to wait weeks or months before returning; their village is now the epicenter of the offensive to rout ISIS from Mosul.

The Kurdish Peshmerga and their Iraqi partners have made good progress in this area – advancing some 20 kilometers in the last week from the east and north. The Peshmerga have been very visibly building a large berm and ditch on what they see as their final destination. Their part in pushing ISIS back into the city is done; they have no intention of entering Mosul themselves. It is an Arab city.

Now it’s over to Iraqi forces – the CTF and its Golden Division. The task ahead for this elite American-trained unit is daunting – but essential to the future of Iraq – to conquer the urban sprawl of Mosul. Preparatory work must still be finished by units to their rear, some say, but soon the battle for the city proper will begin.

In the meantime, they’re waiting for progress on other fronts, especially from the south, where ISIS resistance has been if anything more determined. The next big target of this offensive is the town of Hammam al-Alil, some 25 kilometers south of Mosul.

Taking the town – on a bend in the River Tigris – could be the bloodiest encounter of the offensive so far. ISIS is reported to have sent some of its most hardened fighters – Afghans, Chechens and Moroccans – into the town. By some estimates, tens of thousands of people are still trapped there.

Nick Paton Walsh Mosul ISIS gunfire orig_00004713.jpg
Iraq forces and ISIS exchange gunfire
01:20 - Source: CNN

On this front, patience is needed. One commander, Gen. Ali al Saady says his men will wait for other forces to complete a stranglehold on Mosul before the final assault begins. He said that his forces have prepared safe corridors for civilians to get out of Mosul. Theirs will be a journey just as perilous as that of al Saady’s men in the other direction.

The morale of Iraqi troops we are with is high; there is a steely determination to see this task through. But there are no illusions about the task ahead – the abandoned houses rigged with booby traps, the tunnels weaving under densely packed neighborhoods – above all, those devastating suicide bombs.