Of­fen­sive be­gins to take key city from Is­lamic State

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Love­day Mor­ris

Iraq an­nounced the be­gin­ning of its of­fen­sive for the city of Mo­sul, em­bark­ing on the coun­try’s big­gest fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

KHAZIR, Iraq — Iraq an­nounced the be­gin­ning of its of­fen­sive for the north­ern city of Mo­sul on Mon­day, em­bark­ing on the coun­try’s big­gest fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants so far.

In a tele­vised ad­dress, Prime Min­is­ter Haider alAbadi pledged to raise the Iraqi flag over the city once more, call­ing on res­i­dents to co­op­er­ate with the ad­vanc­ing forces.

Broad­casts showed the prime min­is­ter, dressed in the uni­form of the elite coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces, speak­ing while flanked by se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

“These forces that are lib­er­at­ing you to­day, they have one goal in Mo­sul which is to get rid of Daesh and to se­cure your dig­nity. They are there for your sake,” al-Abadi told the city’s res­i­dents, us­ing an al­ter­nate name for the mil­i­tant group. “God will­ing, we shall win.”

The U.S.-backed opera- tion aims to push the mil­i­tants out of its de facto cap­i­tal in Iraq. More than a mil­lion civil­ians are be­lieved to be trapped in the city.

Late Sun­day, dozens of am­bu­lances were lined up at check­points on the edges of Iraq’s north­ern re­gion of Kur­dis­tan on Sun­day, ready to ferry out ca­su­al­ties. Thou­sands of Iraqi troops have moved into po­si­tion for the bat­tle in re­cent weeks, and new mil­i­tary stag­ing ar­eas have sprung up along front lines.

The Mo­sul of­fen­sive marks a show­down in the Is­lamic State’s last ma­jor strong­hold in Iraq and the city that has come to sym­bol­ize the group’s rise here. It was in Mo­sul’s Great Mosque that Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi an­nounced his self­pro­claimed caliphate more than two years ago.

But since then, the group’s grip has slowly crum­bled. Tikrit, Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah have been clawed back by Iraqi forces, al­beit with a heavy reliance on U.S.-led airstrikes.

It’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore Mo­sul is re­cap­tured, too, al-Abadi said.

“We will soon meet in Mo­sul to cel­e­brate in lib­er­a­tion and your sal­va­tion,” he said, ad­dress­ing the peo­ple of the city. “We will re­build what has been de­stroyed by this crim­i­nal gang.”

The bat­tle for Mo­sul draws to­gether tens of thou­sands of Iraqi troops from an ar­ray of the coun­try’s forces: Kur­dish pesh­merga sol­diers, Sunni tribal fight­ers, army, po­lice, Shi­ite mili­tias and elite coun­tert­er­ror­ism units.

From the sky and on the ground comes close sup­port from the U.S.-led coali­tion. More than 80,000 troops are in­volved, in­clud­ing engi­neers and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, said Maj. Salam Jas­sim, a com­man­der with Iraq’s spe­cial forces.

De­spite some­times com­pet­ing agen­das, the var­i­ous armed forces have united, at least for now, to take back Mo­sul.

At a stag­ing area in a ham­let near Khazir, east of Mo­sul, Jas­sim and his men were wait­ing for the order for “zero hour.” In houses emp­tied by fight­ing, sol­diers en­ter­tained them­selves with cards and domi­noes. Bat­tle plans were drawn in black marker on walls and plas­tic ta­bles.

“We’ll take it,” Jas­sim said, sip­ping on an en­ergy drink. “There’s no doubt.”

Troops have massed to the north, south and east of the city in re­cent weeks.

Trucks packed with Iraqi sol­diers and mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles have clogged the roads as forces have moved into place nearly 250 miles from the cap­i­tal, Baghdad.

Opin­ions are split on just how long and grind­ing the bat­tle will be.

Al-Abadi has pledged to have the city back un­der Iraqi gov­ern­ment con­trol by the end of the year.

But Jas­sim is not sure that’s pos­si­ble, with booby traps and ex­plo­sive de­vices ex­pected to slow the way.

Civil­ians, too, will com­pli­cate the bat­tle. Be­tween 1.2 mil­lion and 1.8 mil­lion are still in­side the city, he said.

To avoid a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment has asked civil­ians to stay in their homes, com­pli­cat­ing air sup­port and oper­a­tions to clear neigh­bor­hoods of mil­i­tants.

“The op­er­a­tion will take much longer be­cause of this,” said Brig. Gen. Haider Obaidi, an­other com­man­der with Iraq’s spe­cial forces. “For their safety, but it also means each neigh­bor­hood needs to be sur­rounded and searched as we clear it.”

Still, the U.S.-led coali­tion will give closer sup­port than in any other op­er­a­tion, he said, and Apache he­li­copters will prob­a­bly be used.

On Sun­day night, prepara­tory airstrikes rat­tled windows in the spe­cial forces base near Khazir.


Iraqi troops clean a mor­tar Sun­day at a base about 35 miles south of Mo­sul in ad­vance of the as­sault to drive out the Is­lamic State from its last ma­jor strong­hold in the na­tion.

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