On the road to Mosul, retreating ISIS fighters aren’t going quietly

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Smoke rises from oil wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants before fleeing the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani - RTX2RCFJ

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: As we reported earlier, Iraqi troops crossed the city limits of the ISIS-held city of Mosul today. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the militants two choices are — quote — “surrender or die.”

Iraqi special forces fought into the city’s eastern outskirts at Gogjali. The road there has been long and dangerous.

Special correspondent Christopher Livesay was there as the troops moved in. And he filed this report.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: This is the road to Mosul, littered with the scorched debris of ISIS in retreat. But they are not going quietly. The sky is black with smoke billowing from the oil fields ISIS has set ablaze. The terror group held this territory for more than two years, and, in that time, they built an elaborate industry to manufacture IEDs and suicide car bombs.

Only now can they see that up close.

This is a suicide car that they were in the process of packing with TNT, but, apparently, they didn’t have enough time before the invasion started. So, they had to run out. But it’s still packed with explosives.

The suicide car bomber appeared to have gotten away and set off the fighting this morning in Gogjali, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Mosul, near an army Iraq roadblock.

And these soldiers with a .50-caliber machine gun?

MAN: Machine gun?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They were able to stop him.

But the driver was still able to detonate his vehicle. His body is now covered by debris, his vehicle lodged in the roadblock. The forces moving on ISIS territory are varied, including Shia militias backed by Iran and security forces from the Kurdish region known as Peshmerga.

But it’s the Iraq army that is leading the charge in Mosul proper. By midday, the ISIS side of the battlefront was still for a moment. And these terrified civilians saw their chance to flee the Islamic State after two years of captivity. They are the lucky ones. Reports are mounting of ISIS rounding up locals by the thousands to use as human shields inside Mosul.

One mother didn’t even have time to stop and give her name.

WOMAN (through translator): The last time we tried to run away, they shot at us. This time, we had to stay very low, so they couldn’t hit us. Today was the first chance that we had.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: We found this 20-year-old shepherd fleeing east with his flock, searching for shelter in hastily built refugee camps. He said ISIS wouldn’t allow him to attend school and punished him for breaking strict Islamic dress codes.

MAN (through translator): I spent five days in jail for wearing long pants. They beat me in there, lashed me. Now I know I’m in a safe place, thank God.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But the relief is bittersweet. He had to leave behind his parents, brothers and sisters. Just when the coast looked clear, ISIS proved it wasn’t giving up without a fight.

(GUNFIRE)

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Gunfire cracks all around. At least one Iraqi soldier is shot dead. But Iraqi special forces are quick to rally and return fire on virtually every building lining this road that leads to the heart of Mosul.

MAN (through translator): We are waiting to go inside the city of Mosul. Mosul is our land. We will enter in three or four days. God willing, we will fly our flag on the city.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But the violence shows no signs of ceasing, as troops move deeper into Mosul, and there is no telling how long the city’s total liberation will take.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Christopher Livesay in Gogjali, Iraq.

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