Iraq forces launch Mo­sul of­fen­sive

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

AL-SHURA, Iraq: Iraqi forces ad­vanced yes­ter­day after launch­ing an of­fen­sive aimed at re­tak­ing Mo­sul and deal­ing 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 60na­tion US-led coali­tion, in what is ex­pected to be a long and dif­fi­cult as­sault on IS’ last ma­jor Iraqi strong­hold. Iraqi forces could be seen ready­ing weapons and am­mu­ni­tions as col­umns of ar­mored ve­hi­cles headed to­wards Mo­sul from the town of Al-Shura, some 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 top 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 yes­ter­day. “To­day I de­clare the start of these vic­to­ri­ous op­er­a­tions to free you from the vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ism of Daesh (IS),” Abadi said. IS seized con­trol of large parts of Iraq and neigh­bor­ing Syria in mid-2014, declar­ing a cross-bor­der “caliphate” and com­mit­ting wide­spread atroc­i­ties.

The mil­i­tants 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 land-hold­ing force. Iraqi forces have been clos­ing in on Mo­sul in re­cent weeks but the bat­tle launched yes­ter­day 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 the city and sur­round­ing area.

But they have had months to pre­pare and will seek to use hit-and-run tac­tics, am­bushes, snipers, bombs, berms and trenches to slow down and bleed Iraqi forces. In a state­ment re­leased on­line after the be­gin­ning of the as­sault, IS claimed it launched a series of deadly sui­cide car bomb at­tacks against 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. Sev­eral vil­lages were promptly re­cap­tured and pesh­merga forces had moved to the edges of Qaraqosh and Bar­talla, two Chris­tian towns seized by IS in Aug 2014, com­man­ders 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.

The United Na­tions and other aid or­ga­ni­za­tions warned that a huge num­ber of civil­ians were in im­me­di­ate dan­ger. “I am ex­tremely con­cerned for the safety of up to 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple,” the UN deputy sec­re­tary gen­eral for hu­man­i­tar­ian af­fairs and emer­gency re­lief, Stephen O’Brien, said.

The UN’s hu­man­i­tar­ian co­or­di­na­tor in Iraq, Lise Grande, told re­porters that an ex­o­dus could be­gin within a week. “It’s a trickle right now,” she said. But “our ex­pec­ta­tion, based on what the mil­i­tary has briefed us (on), is that if we start to see sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion move­ments, it’s likely to be within five to six days.”

The Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil said safe ex­its from Mo­sul must be pro­vided or civil­ians “will be faced with the bleak­est of choices: stay be­hind and risk their lives un­der at­tack, or risk their lives try­ing to flee”. Iraqi forces ad­vanc­ing on mul­ti­ple fronts are some dis­tance from Mo­sul and are ex­pected to even­tu­ally take up po­si­tions on the edge of the city and lay siege be­fore breach­ing its bound­aries and di­rectly en­gag­ing diehard ji­hadists.

“This op­er­a­tion to re­gain con­trol of Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city will likely con­tinue for weeks, pos­si­bly longer,” warned Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Stephen Townsend, com­man­der of the US-led coali­tion. Most of the coali­tion’s sup­port has come in the shape of air strikes and train­ing but US, French and Bri­tish spe­cial forces are also on the ground to ad­vise lo­cal forces in bat­tle. “This is a de­ci­sive mo­ment in the cam­paign to de­liver ISIL a last­ing de­feat,” US Sec­re­tary of De­fense Ash Carter said, us­ing an al­ter­na­tive acro­nym for the ji­hadist group.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan yes­ter­day in­di­cated that Turkey would also play a role in the of­fen­sive de­spite con­cerns raised by Bagh­dad over Ankara’s in­volve­ment. “We will be in the op­er­a­tion and we will be at the ta­ble,” Er­do­gan said in a tele­vised speech. “It is out of the ques­tion that we are not in­volved.”

As the big­gest Iraqi mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion since the 2011 with­drawal of US troops un­folded, a Turk­ish del­e­ga­tion ar­rived in Bagh­dad for talks and coali­tion de­fense min­is­ters agreed to meet in Paris on Oc­to­ber 25 to take stock. IS once con­trolled more than a third of Iraq’s ter­ri­tory but its self-pro­claimed “state” has been shrink­ing steadily. It lost its em­blem­atic bas­tion Fal­lu­jah in June, the An­bar pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Ramadi months ear­lier and on Sun­day Syr­ian rebels re­took the town of Dabiq, which held spe­cial ide­o­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance for the group.

If Mo­sul falls to Iraqi forces, only Raqqa in Syria would re­main as the last ma­jor city in ei­ther coun­try un­der IS con­trol. But even the re­cap­ture of Mo­sul will not mark the end of the war against IS, which is likely to in­creas­ingly turn to in­sur­gent tac­tics as it loses more ground. Just hours after the of­fen­sive was launched, IS claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for a sui­cide car bomb­ing tar­get­ing an Iraqi army check­point south of Bagh­dad that killed at least 10 peo­ple. The ji­hadists have claimed a string of deadly bomb at­tacks in Bagh­dad in re­cent days. — AFP

— AP

KHAZER, Iraq: Kur­dish se­cu­rity forces take up a po­si­tion as they fight over­look­ing Is­lamic State-con­trolled vil­lages sur­round­ing Mo­sul yes­ter­day.

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