Iraqis push to­ward IS-held Mo­sul in long-awaited of­fen­sive

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Su­san­nah Ge­orge

KHAZER, IRAQ >> The lon­gawaited of­fen­sive to re­take Mo­sul from the Is­lamic State group be­gan Mon­day with a vol­ley of U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes and heavy ar­tillery bom­bard­ments on a clus­ter of vil­lages along the edge of Iraq’s his­toric Nin­eveh plain east of the mil­i­tant-held city.

Iraq’s Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers led the ini­tial as­sault, ad­vanc­ing slowly across open fields lit­tered with booby-trapped ex­plo­sives as plumes of black and orange smoke rose over­head — the open­ing phase of an un­prece­dented cam­paign ex­pected to take weeks if not months, and in­volve more than 25,000 troops.

By the end of the day Kur­dish forces had re­taken some 80 square miles, ac­cord­ing to the pres­i­dent of Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan re­gion. Pesh­merga com­man­ders on the ground es­ti­mated the of­fen­sive re­took nine vil­lages and pushed the front­line with IS back five miles.

But the forces’ hold ap­peared frag­ile and the gains largely sym­bolic. Some of the vil­lages were so small they com­prised no more than a few dozen homes, and most were aban­doned.

And though some troops were less than 20 miles from Mo­sul’s edges, it was un­clear how long it would take to reach the city it­self, where more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple still live. Aid groups have warned of a mass ex­o­dus of civil­ians that could over­whelm refugee camps.

Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city, Mo­sul fell to IS in the sum­mer of 2014 as the mil­i­tants swept over much of the coun­try’s north and cen­tral ar­eas. Weeks later the head of the ex­trem­ist group, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, an­nounced the for­ma­tion of a self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria from the pul­pit of a Mo­sul mosque.

If suc­cess­ful, the lib­er­a­tion of the city would be the big­gest blow yet to the Is­lamic State group. After a string of vic­to­ries by Iraqi ground forces over the past year, IS now con­trols less than half the ter­ri­tory it once held, and Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider Al-Abadi has pledged the fight for Mo­sul will lead to the lib­er­a­tion of all Iraqi ter­ri­tory from the mil­i­tants this year.

Al-Abadi an­nounced the start of the op­er­a­tion on state tele­vi­sion be­fore dawn Mon­day, launch­ing the coun­try’s tough­est bat­tle since Amer­i­can troops with­drew from Iraq nearly five years ago.

“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,” alAbadi said, ad­dress­ing the city’s res­i­dents and us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for IS. “God will­ing, we shall win.”

In Wash­ing­ton, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter called the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion “a de­ci­sive mo­ment in the cam­paign” to de­feat IS. The U.S. is pro­vid­ing airstrikes, train­ing and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, but in­sists Iraqis are lead­ing the cam­paign. On Mon­day, Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Peter Cook said a small num­ber of U.S. troops were serv­ing as ad­vis­ers to Iraqi and pesh­merga forces on the out­skirts of Mo­sul.

More than 25,000 Iraqi and Kur­dish troops will be in­volved in the op­er­a­tion, launch­ing as­saults from five di­rec­tions, ac­cord­ing to Iraqi Brig. Gen. Haider Fad­hil. The troops in­clude elite Iraqi spe­cial forces who are ex­pected to lead the charge into the city, as well as the Kur­dish forces, Sunni tribal fight­ers, fed­eral po­lice and state-sanc­tioned Shi­ite mili­tias.

In a po­lit­i­cal deal be­tween the coun­try’s Kur­dish re­gion and the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, it was agreed that Kur­dish forces would ad­vance first, bring­ing the vil­lages they re­take un­der their re­gional con­trol, ac­cord­ing to Iraqi spe­cial forces Lt. Col. Ali Hus­sein.

Once the Kur­dish forces ad­vance far enough, the Iraqi spe­cial forces will move to the new front and pick up the fight.

Speak­ing at a news con­fer­ence just a few miles from the front­line, the Kur­dis­tan re­gion’s Pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani called the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion a “turn­ing point in the war against ter­ror­ism,” but said there was not yet a plan for gov­ern­ing the re­gion after the fight. Po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials in the Kur­dis­tan re­gion have pre­vi­ously said the pesh­merga will not with­draw from any ter­ri­tory they re­take.

Saud Ma­soud, a soldier with Iraq’s spe­cial forces watched the front­line on the hori­zon Mon­day while wait­ing for or­ders to ad­vance. Orig­i­nally from the Chris­tian vil­lage of Bartella, the out­skirts of which were ob­scured by plumes of smoke, he said he per­son­ally didn’t want his home­town to be­come part of the coun­try’s Kur­dis­tan re­gion, but he un­der­stood why Iraqi lead­ers struck the deal.

“Peo­ple are tired of the sit­u­a­tion, very tired hon­estly, so ev­ery­one in­clud­ing my­self is will­ing to com­pro­mise,” he said.

As airstrikes and heavy ar­tillery pounded the squat, dusty build­ings, the area — his­tor­i­cally home to re­li­gious mi­nori­ties bru­tally op­pressed by IS — was al­most com­pletely empty of civil­ians, thus al­low­ing air power to do much of the heavy lift­ing.

Lt. Col. Mo­ham­mad Dar­wish said the main roads and fields were lit­tered with home­made bombs and that sui­cide car bomb at­tacks slowed progress.

Fight­ers en­tered the vil­lages in Humvees but did not get out of their ve­hi­cles be­cause it was too dan­ger­ous, a Pesh­merga ma­jor said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity as he was not au­tho­rized to brief the press.

The IS-run news agency, Aa­maq, said the group car­ried out eight sui­cide at­tacks against Kur­dish forces and de­stroyed two Humvees be­long­ing to the Kur­dish forces and Shi­ite mili­tias east of the city.

Kur­dish forces con­firmed at least one such at­tack. Hisham Kazar, a Kur­dish pesh­merga fighter said one of his rel­a­tives died Mon­day as the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion got un­der­way when a sui­cide car bomber rammed the Humvee he was rid­ing in.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.