Iraqi forces launched an operation to retake the western half of Mosul from the Islamic State group on Sunday morning.
The Iraqi defence ministry had announced on Saturday they had dropped millions of leaflets on the western side of Mosul, telling the population that a ground offensive to dislodge Islamic State from their neighbourhoods is imminent.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation early Sunday morning on state television, saying government forces were moving to “liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression forever”, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after US-backed forces surrounding the city dislodged them from the east in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month.
The leaflets “contain instructions for the citizens to get ready to welcome the Iraqi forces that are coming to liberate their areas and to warn the Daesh (Islamic State) members to lay down their weapons and surrender”, the ministry had said in a statement on Saturday.
“Your armed forces (..) are advancing in the direction of the right side, relying on God,” read one of the leaflets, referring to the western side of the northern Iraqi city.
“Get ready to welcome the sons of your armed forces and to cooperate with them, as your brothers on the left side have done, in order to reduce losses and speed up the conclusion” of the battle, added the leaflet.
Other leaflets warned Islamic State members to “lay down their weapons and surrender”, the ministry said in a statement.
The offensive to dislodge Islamic State from Mosul, its last major city stronghold in Iraq, started in October. The hardline Sunni group declared in 2014 a self-styled caliphate that also spans parts of Syria.
The defeat of the group in Mosul would effectively end the Iraqi half of the “caliphate”.
Mosul is the largest city it captured in both countries and its de facto capital in Iraq. Raqqa is its capital in Syria.
Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets are closed, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters on Saturday.