Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led air coalition are targeting Islamic State defenses on the eastern edge of Mosul with artillery fire and air strikes, although they are meeting stiff resistance in some places. (Reuters)

Iraqi forces said they reached the eastern outskirts of Mosul on Monday and were preparing to make the first break into the city, which has been held by Islamic State militants for more than two years.

Following an early-morning push, forces from Iraq’s elite counterterrorism units took positions on the edge of the suburb of Gogjali, an industrial area on the outer limits of Mosul, said Lt. Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, head of the special forces. They had progressed faster than expected during the day, he said.

Mosul, a city of more than a million people and the heart
of the Islamic State’s self-
proclaimed caliphate, is now within their sights. Speaking on state television, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi assured civilians that his forces were close and urged people to stay in their homes.

Commanders say they have little ability to predict how much resistance security forces will face inside the city. Since the operation to retake Mosul was launched two weeks ago, the militants have abandoned some villages, while in others, they have sent streams of car bombs at the military’s lines. Much will depend, some say, on whether civilians decide to aid the advancing forces as much as they can.

Abadi on Monday also called on civilians to try to expel the militants and prevent them from putting booby traps in neighborhoods. But the presence of so many people also complicates air support from the U.S.-led coalition, which Iraqi forces rely on heavily.

Still, commanders appeared buoyed by their progress on Monday. “Nothing will be hard for us,” Asadi said.

Earlier in the day, the elite units, which have led most of the country’s battles against the militants, retook Bazwaya, the last village between them and the city. Asadi said he had expected the fight there to take two or three days, but it lasted six hours. The militants dispatched three cars rigged with bombs, but they were all detonated by airstrikes, he said.

“We are right on the outskirts of Gogjali,” Asadi said.

How fiercely the militants decide to fight may depend on whether they are penned into the city. Iraq’s array of Shiite militia forces, known as the Hashd Shaabi, joined the Mosul fight over the weekend, ringing the city on the western side, cutting the militants’ supply routes from Syria.

Still, initially at least, a route will be left for them to escape, to ease the fight for security forces inside the city, said Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite armed groups, speaking in the newly retaken village of Zargah, southwest of Mosul, on Monday.

Lt. Gen. Abdelamir Yarallah, a senior army commander, said in a statement that the city’s eastern bank was under direct fire.

“We will cut the head off Daesh and will destroy them,” the prime minister told the state news agency al-Iraqiya, using an alternative name for the group. “Daesh has no part in Iraq.”