Iraqi army troops are pushing ahead with the next stage of the US-backed operation to retake the Isis-controlled city of Mosul after gains by Kurdish peshmerga soldiers in the first 24 hours of the offensive.
More than 77 square miles (200 square km) was regained from Isis on Monday as peshmerga forces cleared seven villages to the east of the city of militants, and Iraqi troops reclaimed 20 villages to the south, Kurdish and Iraqi army officials reported.
The countryside and mostly deserted farming villages are still littered with bombs and landmines, and suicide car bomb attacks also slowed progress. Nonetheless, a Pentagon spokesperson said the offensive is unfolding “ahead of schedule”. In some places, US-backed forces are only seven miles (20 kilometres) away from the outskirts of the city.
The first day of heavy fighting was backed by coalition jets and helicopters which sent plumes of smoke into the sky from dropped bombs and flares. Attacks by Isis on Iraqi tanks continued overnight.
The Kurdish peshmerga troops have now paused on Tuesday, holding their positions in the Khazer region while bomb-clearing squads attempt to clear some of the surrounding countryside.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the long awaited offensive to free Mosul’s estimated 1.5million residents from Isis’ rule had begun in a televised address in the early hours of Monday. Defeat for the group will ultimately mean they lose their last existing stronghold in the country.
More than 30,000 allied army and peshmerga troops mobilised before dawn en route to Mosul, where up to 8,000 Isis fighters have had more than two years to prepare to defend their position, building tunnels, trenches and rigging roads and bridges with bombs.
The UN has said it is “deeply concerned” for the safety of residents of Iraq’s second largest city, who could be trapped by weeks or months of intense fighting. Even if civilians manage to flee, aid agencies are ill-equipped to deal with the expected influx of 200,000 people when Iraqi troops manage to reach the city, thanks to a severe funding shortfall.
Within Mosul itself, Isis remained defiant in the face of the offensive, which military analysts expect to succeed. Its media channels said Iraqi forces had been repelled, and the group also released a video showing that life in Mosul was continuing “as normal”.
The coalition of Shia militia, Sunni tribal fighters, peshmerga, and Iraqi army and other state forces expect to reach the city limits within the next two weeks.
On Tuesday Amnesty International warned that Shia militias have been carrying out extrajudicial detentions and executions on Sunni populations in the months leading up to the Mosul operation, warning that further sectarian-based violence could mar the success of the offensive to oust Isis from the Sunni-majority city.Reuse content