An Iraqi special forces soldier runs across a street after an Islamic State suicide car bomb attack during gunfight in Tahrir neighbourhood of Mosul

(Reuters) A vehicle shielded with metal plates and driven by a suicide attacker turned onto a main road filled with soldiers in eastern Mosul and burst into a ball of fire, causing several casualties.

As it careered down the road it was riddled with gunfire as Iraqi forces responded to the latest ISIL counterattack against their push to reclaim the northern city.

This and what followed on Thursday were indicative of the challenges Iraq’s U.S.-backed military faces in fighting enemies who are willing to kill themselves to defend their last major stronghold in the country while surrounded by well over a million civilians.

Elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces posted at intersections along the road pounded targets a few hundred metres away with heavy machine gun fire. Sharpshooters honed in on black-clad figures scurrying across rooftops or popping out of houses with AK-47s to take a few pot shots.

An hour later, a U.S.-led coalition airstrike pounded an ISIL mortar position before soldiers launched a dozen mortars of their own in a bid to eliminate a gunman who had been spotted and only seemed to get closer.

A commercial drone circling overhead drew gunfire from troops unsure if it belonged to ISIL or the Iraqi military.

All the while, scores of residents carrying backpacks, shopping bags and even pots and pans were fleeing across the frontlines as hundreds more crouched inside their homes in areas retaken by the military a day earlier.

The offensive to take the largest city under ISIL control in Iraq or Syria is turning into the biggest battle in Iraq’s turbulent history since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The advance entered a second month on Thursday.

The heavy presence of civilians in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, has forced the government to slow its campaign which has nearly surrounded the metropolis but so far only breached the jihadists’ defences from the eastern side.

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