Iraqi forces launched an offensive on Monday to retake Mosul and deal a death blow to the Islamic State group’s “caliphate” in the city where it was declared two years ago.
The start of the long-awaited assault raised deep concerns for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Iraq’s second-largest city, with aid groups warning of a massive humanitarian crisis.
Some 30,000 federal forces are leading the offensive, backed by air and ground support from a 60-nation US-led coalition, in what is expected to be a long and difficult assault on IS’s last major Iraqi stronghold.
Iraqi forces could be seen readying weapons and ammunitions as columns of armoured vehicles headed towards Mosul from the town of Al-Shura, 45 km south of the city.
The Pentagon described the operation as a “decisive moment” in the fight against IS but the US-led coalition’s commander warned it could last weeks or more.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of the assault in a televised address in the early hours of Monday. “Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh (IS),” he said.
IS seized control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in mid-2014, declaring a cross-border “caliphate” and committing widespread atrocities.
The jihadists have suffered a string of territorial defeats this year in both countries, and the retaking of Mosul would all but end the group’s presence in Iraq as a landholding force.
Iraqi forces have been closing in on Mosul in recent weeks but the battle launched on Monday could be the toughest yet in the fight against IS.
IS forces are vastly outnumbered, with the US military estimating that 3,000 to 4,500 jihadists are in Mosul and surrounding areas. But they have had months to prepare and will seek to use hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, snipers, bombs and trenches to slow down and bleed Iraqi forces.
As the assault began, federal forces moved from their main staging base of Qayyarah, south of Mosul, while peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region advanced from the east. Around 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga took part in a push to reclaim villages once inhabited by members of the Christian and Kakai minorities, a statement said.
At a staging area near the village of Khazir east of Mosul, Kurdish forces could be seen firing artillery and rockets as smoke rose from houses in the distance.
Abadi stressed that only Iraqi police and army would enter Mosul. “The force leading liberation operations is the brave Iraqi army with the national police and they are the ones that will enter Mosul, not others,” he said.