Iraq strikes IS in Syria as Iraqi forces enter western Mosul

MOSUL AIRPORT, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s air force struck Islamic State targets inside Syria for the first time on Friday as Iraqi troops on the ground pushed into western Mosul, the last major urban stronghold held by the Sunni militant group in Iraq.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the airstrikes in a statement, saying the air force hit the border towns of Boukamal and Husseibah, strikes that came in response to recent bombings in Baghdad claimed by IS and linked to the militants’ operations in Syria.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces pushed into the first neighborhood of western Mosul and took full control of Mosul’s international airport and a sprawling military base on the southwestern edge of the city, according to Iraqi officials.

Iraqi federal police fired volleys of mortars into Mosul from the edge of the airport, which appeared almost completely destroyed: runways had been dug up, control towers flattened and concrete barriers overturned.

The territorial gains marked the first key moves in the battle, now in its sixth day, to rout IS militants from the western half of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The push into the Mamun neighborhood was followed by intense clashes with IS militants, according to an Iraqi special forces officer on the ground, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Similarly intense counterattacks followed pushes on the other fronts. Federal police Maj. Gen. Haider al-Maturi said his forces pushed through concrete roadblocks and earthen berms set up by the Islamic State group to impede their progress, and succeeded in capturing around 30 percent of the Aviation District, the first district entering Mosul’s western perimeter from the south.

“There were fierce clashes. We faced car bombs, suicide attackers and mortar shelling,” al-Maturi said. “The battle ahead will be difficult and complicated because of the civilians around. It’ll be street fights.”

Al-Maturi said six Iraqi troops were wounded, including two officers. However, an Associated Press team near the front line saw at least four wounded special forces’ members and the bodies of three soldiers, suggesting more intense fighting than the previous day. A Canadian medic volunteering at a front-line clinic said he had treated at least 10 wounded federal policemen. Iraq’s military does not release official casualty figures.

Maj. Gen. Thamer Mohammed, commander of the rapid response unit of the Iraqi federal police, said 65 IS fighters were killed in the battle at the airport.

Earlier on Friday, the spokesman of the Joint Military Operation Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said Iraqi forces had also retaken the military base adjacent to the airport.

An Iraqi air force commander said the airstrikes against IS inside Syria were carried out with F-16 warplanes at dawn and “were successful.” The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said they were conducted at the order of the prime minister.