Iraqi forces tighten noose "quickly" on ISIS' last stronghold

NEAR MOSUL, Iraq – CBS News correspondent Holly Williams is with Kurdish forces Thursday morning about 12 miles north of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, where the Kurds have launched a new attack on the ISIS militants holding the vast city and many villages surrounding it.

The Kurdish forces are trying to recapture 27 villages north of Mosul, which would put them within five miles of the city itself. 

Williams watched as the Kurds hammered two villages in ISIS territory, close to their defensive line, with artillery on Thursday. 

She also watched as two ISIS drones approached in the air. They were small, and it’s not clear whether they were armed, but the Kurdish troops shot them down quickly. Earlier this month, two Kurdish fighters were killed by an ISIS drone loaded with explosives. 

Meanwhile, elite Iraqi special forces troops moved into position Thursday to the east of Mosul. They’re fighting to recapture several Christian towns and villages along the main road into the city. The special forces managed to enter the ancient Christian enclave of Bartella after a clashes with militants and several suicide truck bombs.

On Wednesday, an Iraqi officer bragged to CBS News that they would be inside Mosul within a matter of hours – a much faster approach to the city where there are thought to be less than 5,000 ISIS militants still holding out.

Even Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was optimistic Thursday, telling a diplomats gathered in Paris to discuss his country’s crisis that the offensive was going “more quickly than we thought.”

“Our forces have started to move forward to free this city which was taken by IS over two years ago. The fighting forces are currently pushing forward toward the town more quickly than we thought, and more quickly certainly than we established in our plan of campaign,” Al-Abadi told the attendees via video link.

Williams says the reality, however, is that it’s very slow going as the Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces clear these towns and villages, even though most of their residents fled a long time ago. 

Imagine then, notes Williams, how much more difficult it will be to be retake Mosul itself -- a densely packed city where about 1 million residents are still thought to be living, used by ISIS as human shields.