NEAR MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqi-led forces have besieged a Christian town in an attempt to liberate it from ISIS control, but they are facing fierce resistance and exchanging heavy gunfire with the militants, who are using tunnels to ambush troops and place explosive traps, a paramilitary general told CNN.
Iraqi security forces, Peshmerga fighters and a Christian paramilitary group have forced ISIS fighters into the center of Qaraqosh, where airstrikes are now pounding the militants, in apparent coalition support of the assault, according to General Amr Shamoun from the Christian militia group.
It is the latest clash with ISIS militants in an aggressive push toward the Iraqi city of Mosul by a coalition of around 94,000 people, aimed at unshackling the strategic city from more than two years of brutal ISIS control.
Celebrations turn sour
Qaraqosh was a Christian town, home to 50,000 inhabitants before ISIS took control of it, and an exodus saw thousands flee to Mosul, only to be forced out again when ISIS took the key city.
Many of those who fled are now living in the city of Irbil, where they celebrated Tuesday when they heard Iraqi forces had entered their hometown.
They held a vigil overnight, holding candles and singing hymns, images showed, while others gathered in the street, cheering and dancing.
But their celebrations may have come too soon, as news came on Wednesday that ISIS was putting up a real fight in their hometown, as they have in several areas on Mosul’s fringe since the operation launched Monday.
Al-Maliki said his division was around three to four miles (five to six kilometers) from the city’s outskirts. He explained that progress had slowed as protective forces were needed in newly liberated areas to hold ground.
“The forces now are dealing with small pockets of Daesh members hiding in makeshift tunnels. Many Daesh militants pulled back to the Abassiya village,” he said, adding that two Iraqi national ISIS members had been captured.
Al-Maliki’s comments echo those of Sirwan Barzani, a Peshmerga military commander, who told CNN that the battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS could take two months.
Barzani said it would likely take two weeks for advancing forces to enter the city. Iraq’s leaders have said that only Iraqi government troops and national police officers will be allowed to do so amid fears of sectarian retribution, he said.
The coalition’s 94,000 members vastly outnumber their opponents. But ISIS, which has known the push was coming, has constructed elaborate defenses, including a network of tunnels. Coalition forces will also likely face suicide bombs, car bombs and booby traps.
Up to 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, a US military official said. ISIS’ supporters put the number at 7,000.
A unit of what appeared to be US special forces advisers entered ISIS territory with the very first armored convoy of Peshmerga on Monday, a CNN team observed. They followed a dozens-strong unit of Kurdish armor bound for ISIS positions, placing American forces right at the front of the opening moments of the fight to retake Mosul.
Freed but still afraid
Residents from freed villages — Iraqi flags waving from their buildings — have started to cautiously celebrate. In one newly-freed village on the outskirts of Mosul, people have fled in panic as rumors swirled that ISIS was coming back.
Al-Adla, which is about 31 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of Mosul, had been retaken by the 9th armored division, which had marked it free of ISIS and moved on, to liberate other small settlements in the area.
Around 200 of them fled to hide out in a sand berms. Among a group of women there, some told CNN they saw ISIS fighters reemerge from orchards.
“Everyday they would come to us and ask, do you have guns? So you have mobile phones? Give them over,” one woman said, in anger and fear.
“Whoever they found with a mobile phone they would kill. They starved us. They’d kill people who would smoke. We were so happy when the army came,” another said.
After CNN spoke to the community, they heard it was safe to return, and began collecting their belongings to march back together.