IRBIL, Iraq — The shadowy leader of the Islamic State group has released a new message urging his followers to keep up the fight for Mosul as they defend the city against a major offensive aimed at routing the militants from their last urban stronghold in Iraq.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's rallying cry came in a sermon-like recording, more than half an hour long, released by the militant group's al-Furqan media arm late on Wednesday. It was not clear when the recording was produced. Al-Baghdadi's whereabouts are unknown.
Iraqi special forces stormed into Mosul's eastern outskirts on Tuesday after two weeks of advances through surrounding IS-held territory.
The city of more than one million people and the surrounding territory fell to IS fighters during the militant group's surprise attack in June 2014. Al-Baghdadi visited the city soon after the takeover, and from inside Mosul declared an Islamic caliphate that at one point covered nearly a third of Iraq and Syria.
In his recording, al-Baghdadi rallies his fighters — especially in Mosul — and calls on them to obey orders while remaining resilient and steadfast.
"Oh you who seek martyrdom! Start your actions! Turn the night of the disbelievers into day," he says, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S. organization that monitors militant activity online which reported the al-Baghdadi recording first.
"Totally decimate their territories, and make their blood flow like rivers," al-Baghdadi also says.
Hours after his call, an explosives-laden vehicle sped out of an IS-controlled area in Mosul and attacked Iraqi special forces positioned in the city's easternmost Gogjali neighborhood on Thursday. The special forces fired a rocket that blew up the car, killing the attacker.
A second suicide attacker also emerged from the same area, the more central Samah district, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil said, but that vehicle managed to get away. Islamic State fighters were also using explosives-laden drone aircraft, he said, adding that the militants deployed two since the previous night but that both had been destroyed.
Troops in Mosul are stationed at the eastern city limits, and have yet to enter the densely packed urban areas less than a kilometer (mile) away.
By midday, Iraqi forces continued to consolidate their gains, looking for any IS fighters who may have stayed behind, checking houses and streets for booby traps, and handling an influx of hundreds who fled IS-held territory deeper in the city.
In his recording, al-Baghdadi also urges Islamic State militants elsewhere to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia, whose leadership IS opposes, and Turkey, which has deployed troops and artillery north of Mosul and is training Sunni Arab and Kurdish forces there.
The recording was the reclusive al-Baghdadi's first released message to supporters since Iraqi forces launched the decisive battle to retake Mosul, the country's second-largest city, from IS.
It's an attempt to harness the feelings of Sunni disenfranchisement that preceded the 2014 IS takeover of Mosul, a largely Sunni city in Shiite-majority Iraq. Using a derogatory term for Shiites, he says followers of the Muslim sect want to drive "empty Iraq of Sunnis and replace them with the worst of people."
He calls on fighters to "respond to all attacks," and to "target all in their media and forces, and all who belong to them."
The audio message could not be independently verified, though the speaker's voice and style of delivery sounded like that in previous recordings of al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic State group is fighting to hold Mosul as Iraqi forces and allied Kurdish forces advance on the city from multiple directions with U.S.-led coalition support. It is the Iraqi military's largest offensive since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Iraqi forces have proceeded cautiously since breaching Mosul's eastern outskirts this week. They have yet to move into more densely populated areas that could lead to weeks, if not months, of clearing booby-trapped buildings and bloody house-to-house combat.
On Wednesday, residents in the easternmost district of Gogjali cautiously welcomed liberating Iraqi troops, with some raising white flags and flashing the "V'' for victory sign. Men in the area celebrated by shaving the beards they were forced to grow under IS rule.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra on Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report.