MOSUL, IRAQ – Iraqi special forces launched a two-pronged assault deeper into Mosul's urban center on Friday, unleashing the most intense street battles against Islamic State militants since the offensive began nearly three weeks ago. Smoke rose across eastern neighborhoods of Iraq's second-largest city as heavy fighting continued after sundown, with explosions and machine gun fire echoing in the streets as mosques called for evening prayer. More than 3,000 Iraqi troops took part in the assault under heavy U.S.-led coalition air support, but the pace of the fight also slowed as Iraqi forces moved from fighting in more rural areas with few civilians to the tight, narrow streets of Mosul proper. Sniper fire repeatedly stalled the advance, as commanders called in airstrikes or artillery support after coming under fire. As the operation got under way, columns of armored vehicles wound through the desert, pushing through dirt berms and drawing heavy fire as they closed in on the middle-class Tahrir and Zahara districts.
A 17-month U.S. effort to retrain and reunify Iraq's regular army has failed to create a large number of effective Iraqi combat units or limit the power of sectarian militias, according to current and former U.S. military and civilian officials. Concern about the shortcomings of the American attempt to strengthen the Iraqi military comes as Iraqi government forces and Shi'ite militias have launched an offensive to retake the city of Fallujah from the Islamic State group. Aid groups fear the campaign could spark a humanitarian catastrophe, as an estimated 50,000 Sunni civilians remain trapped in the besieged town. The continued weakness of regular Iraqi army units and reliance on Shi'ite militias, current and former U.S. military officials said, could impede Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's broader effort to defeat Islamic State and win the long-term support of Iraqi Sunnis. The sectarian divide between the majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni communities threatens to split the country for good.
FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 8, 2014 file photo, Iraqi lawmakers attend a session in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi lawmakers have called for a "reciprocity measure," banning Americans from entering the country after U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order banning Iraqis and citizens of six other majority-Muslim countries. The Iraqi vote was non-binding for the government, but is poised to strain Iraq's relations with the U.S. in the midst of the operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group.