Ad­vance to­wards the Is­lamic State set to start in ‘a few hours or days’

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BAGH­DAD: Iraqi Shia mili­tias said they would launch an of­fen­sive against the Is­lamic State west of Mo­sul im­mi­nently, a move which would block any re­treat by the Sunni ji­hadists into Syria but is likely to alarm Iraq’s north­ern neigh­bour Turkey.

A spokesman for the Ira­nian- backed para­mil­i­tary groups said the ad­vance to­wards the IS-held town of Tal Afar, about 55km west of Mo­sul, would start within “a few days or hours”.

If suc­cess­ful, the of­fen­sive would leave IS fight­ers – and the 1.5 mil­lion civil­ians still liv­ing in Mo­sul – en­cir­cled by an ad­vanc­ing coali­tion of forces which seeks to crush the hard­line Sunni mil­i­tants in their Iraq strong­hold.

Iraqi sol­diers and se­cu­rity forces and Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers, backed by US-led air strikes and sup­port on the ground, al­ready con­trol Mo­sul’s south­ern, eastern and north­ern flanks, and have ad­vanced on those fronts for nearly two weeks.

They have re­cap­tured scores of vil­lages on the flat plains east of Mo­sul and along the Ti­gris river to the south, but the bat­tle for Mo­sul it­self, Iraq’s sec­ond largest city, could be the most com­plex mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in Iraq since the US-led in­va­sion to top­ple for­mer pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003.

Adding to the chal­lenges fac­ing the ad­vanc­ing forces, re­treat­ing IS fight­ers have forced women and chil­dren from out­ly­ing vil­lages to march along­side them as hu­man shields as they with­draw into the city, ac­cord­ing to vil­lagers who spoke to Reuters by tele­phone from Mo­sul.

Older boys and men of fight­ing age were taken off to an un­known fate, they said.

The UN said yes­ter­day the IS had ab­ducted 8 000 fam­i­lies from around Mo­sul to use as hu­man shields. A spokes­woman also said they had killed 232 peo­ple near Mo­sul on Wed­nes­day who re­fused to com­ply with or­ders.

Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for the Shia forces known col­lec­tively as the Hashid Shaabi, or Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion, said the op­er­a­tion to cut off Mo­sul’s west­ern ap­proaches was cru­cial to the bat­tle against the IS, also known as Daesh.

“This is the most im­por­tant and dan­ger­ous line be­cause it con­nects Mo­sul to Raqqa and is the only sup­ply line for Daesh,” he said.

Raqqa is the IS’s bas­tion in Syria, and the two cities form the sym­bolic cap­i­tals of a cross-bor­der “caliphate” de­clared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi from the pul­pit of a Mo­sul mosque in Au­gust 2014.

Iraqi and mil­i­tary sources say there has been a de­bate about whether or not to close off the west­ern route in and out of Mo­sul.

Leav­ing it open would of­fer IS fight­ers a chance to re­treat, po­ten­tially spar­ing civil­ians in­side the city who might other­wise be trapped in a bloody fight to the fin­ish. Some civil­ians flee­ing Mo­sul have used the roads to the west to es­cape to Qamishli, in Kur­dish-con­trolled north­ern Syria.

Just as the ad­vanc­ing army and pesh­merga forces have had to bat­tle to re­cap­ture even small vil­lages on the road to Mo­sul, fac­ing waves of road­side bomb­ings, sniper fire and sui­cide car bombs, Asadi sug­gested the ad­vance on Tal Afar may take time.

It will be launched from the Qay­yara mil­i­tary base, about 90km to the south­east.

“Tal Afar is the fi­nal des­ti­na­tion... it is the pyra­mid’s peak. But there are vil­lages in the way that need to be lib­er­ated be­fore reach­ing Tal Afar,” Asadi said.

The Tal Afar of­fen­sive will tar­get an area which is close to Turkey and home to a size­able pop­u­la­tion of eth­nic Turk­men, with his­toric cul­tural ties to Turkey.

Turkey fears the use of the Shia mili­tias in the Mo­sul cam­paign will lead to sec­tar­ian strife in the mainly Sunni re­gion and ex­ac­er­bate an ex­pected ex­o­dus of refugees. – Reuters

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