Displaced people who fled from Islamic State held-territory sit outside a mosque guarded by Iraqi soldiers in Shuwayrah, south of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. (Photo AFP)
Elite Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State group on the eastern edge of Mosul on Tuesday, with a top commander saying the "true liberation" of the jihadist-held city had begun.
Amid heavy fighting on the eastern front over the past two days, forces from Iraq's US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) had advanced into Gogjali, a village separated from Mosul by a large cemetery.
"Now is the beginning of the true liberation of the city of Mosul," Staff General Taleb Sheghati al-Kenani, the commander of CTS, told Iraqiya state television from Gogjali.
Staff Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, a senior CTS officer, said in televised remarks that the "clearing operation is still ongoing" in Gogjali, which its forces had stormed in a two-pronged assault on Tuesday morning.
"The next (step) will be towards Al-Zahra and Al-Karama," he told AFP by telephone from the front, referring to two neighbourhoods on the eastern side of Mosul.
Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul, the last major city in the country under IS control.
Since the offensive was launched on October 17, federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have retaken a series of villages as they advance on the city from the north, east and south.
CTS forces -- who were the last to retreat from Mosul when IS seized the city in June 2014 -- are anxious to be the first back inside the city.
As his forces advanced, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned the jihadists they would have no place to run.
"We will close in on (IS) from every place," he said on state television on Monday, dressed in a camouflage uniform.
"They don't have an exit, they don't have an escape, they can only surrender -- they can die or they can surrender," Abadi said.
Some 4,000 to 7,000 militants are believed to be in and around Mosul, where IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the group's cross-border "caliphate" after the group seized control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria two years ago.
For now the militants do have an escape route -- to the west towards IS-controlled territory in neighbouring Syria.
Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, launched an assault at the weekend to cut off that route.
They have been advancing north, their sights set on the town of Tal Afar which commands the city's western approaches.
On the northern and eastern sides of Mosul, peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region have taken a series of villages and towns and consolidated their positions.
To the south, federal forces, backed by coalition artillery units stationed in the main staging base of Qayyarah, have been pushing north.
They have the most ground to cover and are still some distance from the southern limits of Mosul.
The initial shaping phase of the operation is still under way.
Once it is over, Iraqi forces are expected to besiege Mosul, try to open safe corridors for the million-plus civilians still believed to be inside, and then enter the city to take on die-hard militants in street battles.
Humanitarian organisations have been fighting against the clock to build up the capacity to handle an expected mass exodus from the city.
The United Nations says up to a million people could be displaced in the coming weeks.
More than 17,900 people have already fled their homes since the operation began, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
IS group has been losing ground steadily in Iraq since 2015 and the outcome of the Mosul battle is in little doubt, but commanders have warned it could last months.
If the city is retaken, only Raqa in Syria will remain as the last major city under the militants' control.