Iraqi and Kurdish forces advance for ‘decisive’ Mosul battle

Ground troops supported by US-led air strikes seek to retake city from Islamic State

The Iraqi army prepare for an offensive to retake Mosul, the capital of Islamic State's so-called caliphate in Iraq. Video: Reuters

 

Columns of Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes have slowly advanced on Mosul from several directions, launching a long-awaited operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city from Islamic State.

As air strikes sent plumes of smoke into the air and heavy artillery rounds rumbled, troops pushed into abandoned farming villages on the flat plains outside the city.

But they were slowed by roadside bombs hurled at them by the militants.

The unprecedented operation is expected to take weeks, even months.

Though some of the forces are less than 30km (20 miles) from Mosul’s edges, it was not clear how long it would take to reach the city itself.

Once there, they have to fight their way into an urban environment where more than one million people still live.

Aid groups have warned of a mass exodus of civilians that could overwhelm refugee camps.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operations on state television, launching the country’s toughest battle since US troops withdrew from Iraq nearly five years ago.

“These forces that are liberating you today, they have one goal in Mosul, which is to get rid of Daesh and to secure your dignity,” Mr al-Abadi said, addressing the city’s residents and using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known as Isis. “God willing, we shall win.”

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to Islamic State in the summer of 2014 as the militants swept over much of the country’s north and central areas.

Weeks later the head of the extremist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.

If successful, the liberation of Mosul would be the biggest blow yet to the group.

Mr al-Abadi pledged the fight for the city would lead to the liberation of all Iraqi territory from the militants this year.

‘Decisive moment’

In Washington, US defence secretary Ash Carter called the launch of the Mosul operation “a decisive moment in the campaign” to defeat Islamic State.

The US is providing air strikes, training and logistical support, but insists Iraqis are leading the charge.

More than 25,000 troops will be involved in the operation, launching assaults from five directions, according to Iraqi Brig Gen Haider Fadhil.

The troops include elite special forces who are expected to lead the charge into the city, as well as Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters, federal police and state-sanctioned Shia militias.

The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, advanced in long columns of armoured vehicles followed by hundreds of pick-up trucks on a cluster of some half a dozen villages east of the city on Monday.

Air strikes and heavy artillery pounded the squat, dusty buildings.

The area – historically home to religious minorities brutally oppressed by Islamic State – was almost completely empty of civilians, allowing air power to do much of the heavy lifting.

But Lt Col Mohammad Darwish said the main roads and fields were littered with homemade bombs and that suicide car bomb attacks slowed progress.

Fighters entered the villages in Humvees but did not get out of their vehicles because it was too dangerous, a Peshmerga major said.

The Islamic State-run news agency, Aamaq, said the group carried out eight suicide attacks against Kurdish forces and destroyed two Humvees belonging to the Kurdish forces and Shia militias east of the city.

The Kurdish Rudaw TV broadcast images of Kurdish tanks firing on two trucks it said were Islamic State suicide attackers. One of the trucks crashed into a tank and exploded. There was no immediate word on casualties from that attack or other fighting on Monday.

Just outside Baghdad – more than 360km (225 miles) southeast of Mosul – a suicide car bomber hit a checkpoint of security forces in the town of Yusufiyah, killing at least 12 people and wounding more than 30, officials said.

Iraqi army Lt Gen Talib Shaghati said the Mosul operation “is going very well”, but declined to give details.

He said intelligence reports indicated that Islamic State militants were fleeing towards Syria with their families.

The group once controlled nearly a third of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

But over the past months their territory has been dramatically reduced.

In Iraq, their control is now limited to the area around Mosul and a few other small pockets.

For the Iraqi military, the battle is a test after two years of trying to rebuild from the humiliating defeat it suffered in the face of the Islamic State blitz in 2014.

Ethnic tensions

Mosul is also a test for the government’s ability to control the multiple sectarian and ethnic tensions swirling around the conflict.

Mosul is a mostly Sunni city that was long a centre of bitterness against the Shia-led government, fuelling insurgent and militant movements ever since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While two years of Islamic State rule may have left residents hating the militants, there is also little love for the government.

The role of the Shia militias in the offensive has been particularly sensitive.

Shia militia forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against civilians in other Sunni areas.

But Sunnis are also suspicious of the Kurds, who have ambitions to expand their self-rule area into Nineveh province, where Mosul is located.

Lt Col Amozhgar Taher, with the peshmerga, said his men would not enter Mosul itself because of “sectarian sensitivities”.

Instead they will retake the villages to the east of the city, home to Christians and the Shabak, another minority group.

Iraqi special forces Lt Col Ali Hussein said the Kurdish forces were leading the first push on Mosul’s eastern front. His men will probably wait another day or two near the town of Khazer.

US Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-Islamic State coalition, said in a statement it could take “weeks, possibly longer” to gain control of Mosul.

Military operations are predicted to displace 200,000 to a million people, according to the UN.

Near the eastern frontline, rows of empty camps line the road, ready to take in people fleeing.

But aid groups say they only have enough space for about 100,000 people.

In Geneva, a senior UN humanitarian official, undersecretary-general Stephen O’Brien, said he is “extremely concerned” for the safety of civilians in Mosul.

He said families are at “extreme risk” of being caught in crossfire, tens of thousands may end up besieged or held as human shields, and thousands could be forcibly expelled.

In the midst of financial crisis, the Iraqi government says it lacks the funds to adequately prepare for the humanitarian fallout.

In some cases commanders say they are encouraging civilians to stay in their homes rather than flee.

“While we may be celebrating a military victory” after Mosul is liberated, “we don’t want to have also created a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister for Iraq’s Kurdish region.

AP