QAYYARAH: Iraqi forces were making gains as tens of thousands of fighters advanced on Mosul on Tuesday in an unprecedented offensive to retake the city from the militant Islamic State group.
With the crucial battle in its second day, Iraqi commanders said progress was being made as fighters pushed on two main fronts towards the city.
The US military, which is leading a coalition providing air and ground support, said Iraqi forces even looked “ahead of schedule” but warned the battle would be long and difficult.
Advancing in armoured convoys on several fronts across the dusty plains surrounding Mosul, forces moved into villages defended by pockets of IS fighters after intensive aerial bombardment.
Massive columns of smoke rose from burning oil wells near the government forces’ main staging base in Qayyarah, blotting out the horizon and turning the sky grey for miles.
A soldier at a checkpoint nearby said that IS lit the wells on fire to provide cover from air strikes before the town of Qayyarah was retaken in late August. The fires had been burning ever since.
The long-awaited offensive was launched on Monday, with some 30,000 federal forces involved in Iraq’s largest military operation since the 2011 pullout of US troops.
Retaking Mosul would deprive IS of the last major Iraqi city under its control, dealing a fatal blow to the “caliphate” the jihadists declared two years ago after seizing large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Iraqi commanders said IS fighters were hitting back with suicide car bomb attacks but that the offensive was going as planned.
“Many villages have already been liberated,” said Sabah al-Numan, the spokesman of the elite counter-terrorism service.
“Iraqi forces have achieved their goals and even more, but we’re careful to stick to the plan and not rush this.”
The two main fronts are south of Mosul, where forces are moving from Qayyarah, and east, where another push involving Kurdish peshmerga fighters is under way.
In the south, forces inching forward along the Tigris river were training their sights on a village called Hammam al-Alil, while units east of Mosul were close to Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s biggest Christian town.
Iraqi forces have significant ground to cover before reaching the boundaries of the city, which IS is defending with berms, bombs and burning oil trenches.
A siege is likely to ensue and then a breach by crack units that will engage die-hard IS fighters.
IS forces are vastly outnumbered, with the US military estimating 3,000 to 4,500 jihadists in and around Mosul.
“Our forces are using a variety of means at their disposal against the terrorists and we’ll have more surprises for them when we reach the city,” Numan said.
The US-led coalition said strikes destroyed 52 targets on the first day of the operation.
“Early indications are that Iraqi forces have met their objectives so far, and that they are ahead of schedule for this first day,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
“We are in the first day of what we assume will be a difficult campaign that could take some time.” Aid groups are bracing for a potentially massive humanitarian crisis.
IS using Mosul civilians as human shields
Mosul :- Islamic State extremists were barring civilians from leaving Mosul on Tuesday and using them as human shields, as the battle for the Iraqi city entered its second day, a Pentagon official said.
“We know they are being used as human shields, absolutely,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis told reporters.
“They are being held there against their will. We have not seen any change in the last day of people leaving or fleeing.”
Authorities and aid agencies are bracing for a massive flow of civilians fleeing Mosul as the fight progresses.
Currently, the action has largely been in villages surrounding Iraq’s second-largest city and the remaining IS stronghold in the country.
President Barack Obama warned of “significant” displacement but said the United Nations and other aid groups were ready.
“We have put together plans and infrastructure for dealing with a potential humanitarian crisis that are as extensive as the military plans,” Obama told reporters earlier.
United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said an estimated 200,000 people are expected to be displaced in the first weeks of the offensive, growing to as many as one million under a worst-case scenario.
But “what you are not seeing is a mass exodus of civilians, and that’s because they are being forcibly held there,” Davis said.
The fighting so far has been fairly light, mainly focused on traditionally Kurdish villages east of Mosul that Kurdish peshmerga fighters are reclaiming from IS.
Davis said extremists were deploying suicide-car attackers and had been attempting to thwart air raids and intelligence drones by igniting giant pits full of oil and tires to create thick smoke clouds to hide their movements and positions.
“We’ve seen very good progress,” he said.
“It’s going to be a while. There’s a lot of movement they have to do to get in (to Mosul) but it’s very much under way.”
Mosul will be a difficult fight, says Obama
President Barack Obama warned on Tuesday of a tough battle ahead as Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition advance on Mosul to wrest the city from the militant Islamic State group.
Obama said the push to liberate the northern city, the jihadists’ last stronghold in Iraq, now in its second day, was a “major step forward.” “I am confident that ISIL will be defeated in Mosul and that will be another step toward their ultimate destruction,” he told a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, using an acronym for the jihadist group. But the US leader warned of a challenging road ahead.
“Mosul will be a difficult fight. There will be advances and there will be setbacks,” Obama said.
“Perhaps one million civilians are still living there,” Obama added. “In addition to rooting out ISIL, our focus is on the safety and humanitarian aid for civilians escaping the fight. That will be a top priority for both our governments.”
Mosul battle enters 3rd day
The long-awaited battle for Mosul enters its third day, in a push which has seen the Iraqi army join forces with various military groups in the country, including Shia, Sunni and Kurdish forces, to drive out Daesh terrorists from their last stronghold in Iraq. Mosul slipped into the hands of Daesh in the summer of 2014. It took months for the army and pro-government volunteer forces to prepare for the decisive offensive to liberate the strategic northern city.
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