Iraqi special forces charged into the Mosul battle Thursday with a pre-dawn advance on a nearby town held by ISIS, a key part of a multi-pronged assault on eastern approaches to the besieged city. As they advanced, attack helicopters fired on the militants and heavy gunfire echoed across the plains, the AP reports. A military spokesman says the elite forces advanced on the abandoned, traditionally Christian town of Bartella with the aid of US-led coalition airstrikes and heavy artillery on the fourth day of a massive operation to retake Iraq's second-largest city. "God willing, we will take this town today," he says.
The militants fought back, unleashing at least four suicide car bombs against the advancing forces, one of which blew up after it was struck by tank fire. The special forces are expected to lead the way into Mosul, where they will face fierce resistance in an urban landscape where ISIS militants are preparing for a climactic battle. The offensive is expected to take weeks, if not months. The Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, who are also taking part in the offensive, announced a "large-scale operation" to the north and northeast of Mosul on Thursday. (The UN warns that the fight for Mosul could cause the year's biggest humanitarian crisis.)