On the ground with Kurdish fighters as the battle for Mosul begins

Kurds fight for Mosul
Kurds fight for Mosul 02:49

OUTSIDE OF MOSUL, Iraq -- Just after dawn Monday, a column of tanks and armored vehicles broke through the front line, rolling into ISIS territory.

The men are Kurdish fighters who have joined with the Iraqi army and local militiamen to push ISIS out of Mosul, a combined force thought to be more than 20,000 strong.

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A Kurdish tank rolls to the front line CBS News

The Kurdish fighters are trying to retake the main road to Mosul. But ISIS has lit fires in neighboring villages to try to shield themselves from airstrikes.

The fires did not work, as U.S. coalition strikes pounded ISIS on Monday, and the extremists lost more territory and more fighters.

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Kurdish forces launch a missile from the bed of a pickup truck CBS News

But the battle so far is only on the outskirts of Mosul -- a handful of farming villages, long emptied of civilians -- now an apocalyptic landscape.

ISIS fought back with suicide bombers. One car laden with explosives drove dangerously close to where a CBS News crew was standing before it was blown up by an anti-tank missile.

“ISIS doesn’t fight as well as it used to, and their morale is down,” said Col. Jader Gardy. “That’s why they’re using more suicide bombers.”

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The plume of smoke in the distance shows where Kurdish fighters blew up a car filled with explosives CBS News

But a desperate enemy is a dangerous one, and the battle for Mosul is just beginning.

The U.S. military says fewer than 5,000 ISIS fighters are left in Mosul but they’re preventing around one million civilians from leaving, using them as human shields. The roughly 6,000 American troops currently in Iraq are acting in what the U.S. government insists is an advisory role.