BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces have cleared the Mosul airport on the second day of ground operations amid heavy fighting with the Islamic State (IS) on Monday.
The ongoing offensive on IS aims to free the western side of the city, which is the last remaining stronghold of the terrorist outfit in Mosul.
The federal police, as well as the Rapid Response force, are leading the charge toward the airport, trying to dislodge the militants from a nearby hill identified as Albu Saif.
Moreover, the Iraqi forces plan to transform the airport into a support base for the onslaught into Western Mosul itself.
Iraq launches offensive on last Islamic State stronghold in Mosul
IS militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians as they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month after 100 days of fighting.
"They are striking and engaging our forces and pulling back towards Mosul," Rapid Response units Major Mortada Ali Abd said. "God willing Albu Saif will be fully liberated today," he added.
"God willing Albu Saif will be fully liberated today," he added.
Helicopters were strafing the Albu Saif hill to clear it of snipers, while machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades can be heard.
The advancing forces also disabled a car bomb — used by the militants to obstruct attacking forces.
The Iraqi forces have been advancing so far in sparsely populated areas.
The fighting will get tougher as they get nearer to the city itself and the risk greater for the civilians.
Iraq forces advance in Mosul but civilian toll mounts: UN spokesperson
Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets are closed, said United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande.
Commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east of the city, which Iraqi forces have taken control of last month after three months of fighting because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.
The militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, disappear after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to residents.
Western Mosul contains the old city centre, with its ancient souks, government administrative buildings, and the mosque from which IS leader Abu Bakr alBaghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The city is the largest urban centre captured by IS in both countries. IS was thought to have up to 6,000 fighters in Mosul when the government's offensive started in mid-October.
Of those, more than 1,000 have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.
The remainder now faces a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shia paramilitary groups.
The westward road that links the city to Syria was cut in November by the Shia paramilitary known as Popular Mobilization forces.
The militants are in charge of the road that links Mosul to Tal Afar.
Civilians caught in crossfire
Coalition aircraft and artillery have continued to bombard targets in the west during the break that followed the taking of eastern Mosul.
The United States, which has deployed more than 5,000 troops in the fighting, leads an international coalition providing key air and ground support, including artillery fire, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Capturing Mosul would effectively end the group's ambitions for the territorial rule in Iraq.
Iraqi military retakes two Mosul villages as offensive continues
About 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the start of the offensive in October, UN officials say.
Medical and humanitarian agencies estimate the total number of dead and wounded - both civilian and military - at several thousand.
"This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay - or execution and snipers if they try to run," Save the Children said, adding that children make up about half the population trapped in the city.