Iraqi forces move to­ward Mo­sul

Vil­lages near city re­cap­tured from Is­lamic State group

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Love­day Mor­ris and Ka­reem Fahim

Iraqi forces de­ploy in the area of al-Shourah, about 27 miles south of Mo­sul, as troops ad­vanced Tuesday to re­take the city from the Is­lamic State group. Iraqi and Kur­dish forces were backed by U.S.-led airstrikes.

ASQUF, Iraq — A force com­pris­ing thou­sands of Kur­dish and Iraqi army sol­diers wrested ter­ri­tory from the Is­lamic State out­side the north­ern city of Mo­sul on Mon­day, fac­ing oc­ca­sion­ally fierce re­sis­tance at the start of a long­promised of­fen­sive to dis­lodge the ex­trem­ists from their main strong­hold in Iraq.

Kur­dish forces moved to take a string of vil­lages east of the cap­tive city while Iraqi army and po­lice units made a push from the south, a rare dis­play of co­or­di­na­tion and har­mony be­tween ri­val forces that of­fi­cials hailed as a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory in it­self. Kur­dish of­fi­cials said Mon­day evening that their forces had cleared nine vil­lages in an area mea­sur­ing roughly 75 square miles, al­though the de­gree of their con­trol over the ter­ri­tory re­mained un­clear.

An­nounced be­fore dawn in a tele­vised ad­dress by Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, the bat­tle is the most am­bi­tious of­fen­sive launched by Iraq’s se­cu­rity forces since they were cre­ated af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sion in 2003. As the sun rose and war­planes of the U.S.-led coali­tion cir­cled over­head, giddy Kur­dish sol­diers known as pesh­merga rode ar­mored ve­hi­cles, land movers and even mo­tor­cy­cles on dirt roads to­ward front lines that Kur­dish troops take up a po­si­tion dur­ing fight­ing on Mon­day to take a town east of Mo­sul from Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. seemed to ad­vance by the hour.

The dis­parate forces push­ing to play a role in Mo­sul’s lib­er­a­tion — in­clud­ing pesh­merga, Sunni tribal fight­ers, Ira­ni­an­backed Shi­ite mili­tias and govern­ment units sup­ported by the United States — have un­der­scored the col­lec­tive sense of trauma and anger in Iraq as the city has suf­fered un­der the bru­tal reign of the Is­lamic State since it stormed Mo­sul early in the sum­mer of 2014.

De­spite of­ten com­pet­ing agen­das, some of the forces have united to take back the mil­i­tant group’s most prized re­main­ing ter­ri­tory in the coun­try.

But there are fears that any al­liances will only be temporary be­cause of com­pet­ing in­ter­ests in and around Mo­sul, an area rich with eth­nic and religious dif­fer­ences as well as oil. Iraqi and U.S. of­fi­cials have as­sid­u­ously sought to build up a sense of mo­men­tum around the bat­tle for Mo­sul, partly out of con­cern that ri­val­ries will rise to the fore and ham­per the mil­i­tary ef­fort.

U.S. of­fi­cials say that Amer­i­can troops, who num­ber more than 5,000 in Iraq, are help­ing to co­or­di­nate lo­gis­tics, con­duct plan­ning and over­see the air cam­paign, while a smaller num­ber are ex­pected to ac­com­pany Iraqi forces as they ad­vance on Mo­sul.

The re­peated de­lays in mount­ing an of­fen­sive on Mo­sul have been at­trib­uted to the special chal­lenges posed by the city, be­cause of eth­nic sen­si­tiv­i­ties and its sheer size. Iraqi of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that at least 1.2 mil­lion res­i­dents re­main in Mo­sul, rais­ing fears of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties as well as a mass ex­o­dus.

Dozens of pesh­merga fight­ers gath­ered early Mon­day in stag­ing ar­eas about 30 miles from Mo­sul, load­ing am­mu­ni­tion and sup­plies into Humvees and other ar­mored ve­hi­cles. The sol­diers spoke con­fi­dently about their mission — to capture a se­quence of vil­lages east of Mo­sul and near the town of Bartella as war­planes with a United States-led coali­tion car­ried out airstrikes on Is­lamic State-held ter­ri­tory nearby.

“We are feel­ing great. It won’t take more than a day and a half,” said Maj. Bahram Bah­jat, a pesh­merga com­man­der. He was far less con­fi­dent, though, about the pos­si­bil­ity of lib­er­at­ing Mo­sul it­self, pre­dict­ing it would take months and be a “bloody bat­tle.”

Ar­mored col­umns bar­reled down roads to­ward vil­lages ob­scured by smoke from fires set by the mil­i­tants. Mor­tar rounds landed near pesh­merga en­gi­neers build­ing dirt for­ti­fi­ca­tions, but they con­tin­ued their work, un­de­terred. A sui­cide car bomb was struck be­fore it could at­tack, ac­cord­ing to Maj. Shivan Ih­san Saleh, point­ing at a tow­er­ing plume of smoke from a nearby hill.

“This is a dan­ger­ous en­emy. They use booby traps, sui­cide bombs. Our in­for­ma­tion is that they have been dig­ging tun­nels,” he said, adding that “our morale is high.”

Kur­dish of­fi­cials re­fused to com­ment on ca­su­al­ties. Medics near the front lines said Mon­day morn­ing that at least one sol­dier was killed and two were in­jured in the fight­ing around Bartella.

Sep­a­rate from the Kur­dish gains, the Iraqi mil­i­tary said more than a dozen vil­lages were cap­tured be­tween the area of Gwer and the south of the city, while two oth­ers were seized by po­lice and army forces as they ad­vanced from Qay­yarah air base, about 35 miles south of Mo­sul.

But the mil­i­tary of­fi­cial said the vil­lages were largely empty.

“The en­emy booby­trapped them and then re­treated,” he said. “The ad­vance is very, very slow be­cause of the booby traps.”

Pen­tagon spokesman Peter Cook said that Iraqi forces were do­ing bet­ter than ex­pected on the first day of the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion.

“Early in­di­ca­tions are that Iraqi forces have met their ob­jec­tives so far and that they are ahead of sched­ule for this first day,” Cook said at the Pen­tagon. He said they had reached their first-day ob­jec­tives by around mid­day.

Some 3,000 to 5,000 Is­lamic State fight­ers were es­ti­mated to re­main within Mo­sul, Cook said.

AH­MAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

AP

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