Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday announced the start of an offensive to retake Mosul, the capital of Islamic State’s “caliphate” and the terror group’s last major stronghold.
The assault on Mosul is backed by the US-led coalition and could be one of the biggest military operations in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The push will also be the biggest military operation since US troops left Iraq in 2011 and, if successful, the strongest blow yet to the IS, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. IS fighters are dug in, and have forced civilians to stay in harm’s way during previous battles.
“I announce today the start of the heroic operations to free you from the terror and the oppression of Daesh,” al-Abadi said in a speech on state TV, surrounded by the armed forces’ top commanders. “We will meet soon on the ground of Mosul to celebrate liberation and your salvation.”
Brett McGurk, US envoy to the coalition against the IS, tweeted: “We are proud to stand with you in this historic operation.”
Al-Abadi addressed the people of Mosul, saying “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. They are there for your sake.”
Turkey’s deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus said some 3,000 Turkish-trained Iraqi fighters are taking part in the operation to retake Mosul. He also told reporters Turkey has no intention of withdrawing its troops from a base in northern Iraq, where they have been training Iraqi forces to fight the IS.
Kurtulmus said nearly 4,000 Mosul fighters, including Arabs, Turkmens, Kurds, and a number of Yazidis, have been trained at the camp in Bashiqa near Mosul.
“Aout 3,000 of them have joined the Mosul operation” with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, he said.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces had taken control of seven villages east of Mosul and were also controlling the main road linking the city with Irbil, the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital further to the east.
The report also said two would-be IS suicide bombers were “neutralized” during operations on Monday morning.
The Turkish troop presence in Bashiqa has stirred tension with Iraq, which says they should leave as they are violating Iraq’s sovereignty. Turkey says the troops were invited by Iraqi forces and has ignored the calls.
UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brien said he was “extremely concerned” for the safety of civilians in Mosul. He said in a statement that “depending on the intensity and scope of the fighting, as many as 1 million people may be forced to flee their homes in a worst-case scenario”.
The families are at “extreme risk” of being caught in crossfire, and tens of thousands could end up besieged or held as human shields, and thousands could be forcibly expelled. O’Brien urged all sides “to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they are entitled to and deserve”.
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials said a suicide bombing that targeted security forces outside Baghdad killed at least nine people and injured 35 more. A police officer said the bomber drove his explosive-laden car into an Iraqi Army checkpoint in Youssifiyah, 20 km south of Baghdad.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but it had all the hallmarks of the IS, which has staged similar attacks in the past. The attack came just hours after the Iraqi government announced the start of the long-awaited military offensive against Mosul.