Bazwaya (Iraq) (AFP) - Iraqi forces advanced to within a few hundred metres of Mosul on Monday, moving within striking distance of a city they lost to the Islamic State group two years before.
Forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) faced mortar fire as they pushed from the Christian town of Bartalla towards Mosul's eastern suburbs, AFP correspondents at the front said.
As an aircraft struck a suspected IS mortar position in the distance, a convoy of Humvees sprayed gunfire across the arid plain toward jihadist positions as they advanced.
Lieutenant Colonel Muntadhar Salem said the CTS had recaptured Bazwaya, one of two IS-held villages that had been standing between Iraqi forces and the eastern edges of Mosul.
"Tonight, if everything is secured, we will be 700 metres (yards) from Mosul," Salem said.
For the officer and his men in the CTS's "Mosul Regiment", retaking Mosul is a matter of pride.
They were the last to retreat when IS took the city over on June 10, 2014 and they want to be the first back in.
The voice of Colonel Mustafa al-Obeidi came sputtering over the radio as his men advanced cautiously through Bazwaya, sidling along walls and scanning the empty streets with their rifles raised.
"They're fleeing, the jihadists are fleeing into Mosul," Obeidi said.
- New western front -
CTS forces also entered the second village, Gogjali, Staff Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, a senior CTS commander, told AFP by telephone.
He denied reports that Iraqi forces had entered the Al-Karama area inside Mosul, saying they were still about 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) away.
Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul on different fronts, in the country's biggest military operation in years.
On the northern and eastern sides of Mosul, the extremist group's last major bastion in Iraq, peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region recently took several villages and consolidated their positions.
To the south of the city, 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.
Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, opened another front over the weekend.
- Post-'caliphate' life -
They are not directly headed for Mosul, instead setting their sights on the town of Tal Afar to the west, with the aim of retaking it and cutting supply lines between Mosul and the Syrian border.
Their leadership says publicly that they do not intend to enter Mosul, which has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, but commanders on the ground say they want to fight inside the city.
The Hashed said Monday that they had retaken a series of villages and surrounded others as they advanced to the west, while Iraq's Joint Operations Command announced the recapture of villages around the city.
The initial shaping phase of the operation, during which dozens of villages and several towns have already been retaken from IS, is still under way.
Once the initial phase is over, Iraqi forces are expected to besiege Mosul, try to open safe corridors for the million-plus civilians still believed to live there, and breach the city to take on die-hard jihadists in street battles.
Humanitarian organisations have been fighting against the clock to build up the capacity to handle an expected exodus from the city.
The United Nations says up to a million people could be displaced in the coming weeks.
More than 17,500 people have already fled their homes since the operation began, and the Norwegian Refugee Council said there were currently only 55,000 more places available in camps.
In the dozens of villages and towns scattered over territory retaken from IS over the past two weeks, civilians were very slowly returning to a life free from the "caliphate" IS declared in Mosul in 2014.
Qaraqosh, which was previously Iraq's largest Christian town, saw its first mass in more than two years on Sunday.
"After two years and three months in exile, I just celebrated the Eucharist in the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the Islamic State wanted to destroy," Yohanna Petros Mouche, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, said.
Most retaken areas were far from being habitable, however, with months of mine clearing and reconstruction needed before the bulk of the original population can return.
IS 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.