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