Mosul offensive: US ‘confident’ it will reclaim Isis stronghold after first day of attack

Kurdish Peshmerga forces reported clearing seven villages of Isis militants despite suicide bomb attacks after long-awaited offensive to retake Iraqi city of Mosul announced

Monday 17 October 2016 18:38 BST
Pro-government forces clear the area around Iraq's eastern Salaheddin province ahead of the battle for Mosul
Pro-government forces clear the area around Iraq's eastern Salaheddin province ahead of the battle for Mosul (AFP/Getty)

Kurdish, Iraqi and US officials have reported slow but steady progress in the first day of the announced battle to retake the last Iraqi stronghold of Mosul from Isis.

The Pentagon said on Monday it was “very confident” in the success of the US-backed operation, which will have major repercussions for Iraq’s future, as well as the legacy of US President Barack Obama.

If successful, Operation Inherent Resolve will effectively spell Isis’s defeat in the country – although unlike the militants' efforts to retain control in other cities such as Fallujah, experts expect Isis will not give up its “second city” without a fight, putting up to 1.5 million civilians in danger.

Long convoys of around 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops mobilised around dawn on Monday, accompanied by the roar of Western coalition jets and helicopters which dropped flares.

By sundown, Kurdish forces said they had made slow progress to the east of Mosul, retaking seven villages mostly deserted of civilians in the Ninevah plain, a corridor leading to the city.

Isis claimed no fewer than 12 suicide bomb attacks designed to slow the Kurdish troops' advance. The countryside and towns outside Mosul were also reported to be littered with bombs.

Iraqi intelligence reports suggested that Isis fighters in the region were fleeing back to neighbouring Syria with their families, Iraqi army Lt Gen Talib Shaghati said, adding that the offensive was “going very well”.

Assault on Mosul gathers pace

Isis is on “the back foot”, and Monday marked a “big moment” in the fight against the group, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said.

“Mosul is a large and complex city and operations there will be tough but with coalition support Iraqi forces will prevail.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state television in the early hours of Monday to announce that the long-awaited attempt to free the city had begun in what is set to be the militants’ toughest military test to date.

“These forces that are liberating you today, they have one goal in Mosul, which is to get rid of Daesh [Isis] and to secure your dignity,” Mr Abadi said, addressing residents who have suffered under the group’s interpretation of Sharia law for more than two years. “God willing, we shall win.”

Iraqi forces deploy in the area of al-Shourah, some 45 kms south of Mosul, as they advance towards the city to retake it from jihadis (Getty)

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was home to two million people before it was captured by Isis in the group’s blitz-like expansion across Iraq in the summer of 2014. Aid organisations are worried for the welfare of the estimated 1.5 million left trapped in the city, which is likely to see prolonged and heavy fighting. The around 8,000 fighters are thought to be well-prepared for battle, building extensive tunnel networks, trenches to be filled with burning oil and rigging roads and bridges with explosives to impede Iraqi forces' movements.

Around 200,000 people are expected to flee the first few days of the offensive, despite repeated requests from the Iraqi government in dropped leaflets and radio addresses for civilians to stay indoors and place white flags on the roofs of their homes.

While the military promised that details of planned humanitarian corridors out of Mosul to nearby camps would be provided, several international agencies have raised concerns that the military seems more intent in locking the city down to prevent anyone from leaving.

Millions in need of aid as Iraqi forces advance on Mosul

“Unless safe routes to escape the fighting are established, many families will have no choice but to stay and risk being killed by crossfire or bombardment, trapped beyond the reach of humanitarian aid with little food or medical care,” Aram Shakaram, Save the Children’s deputy country director in Iraq, said.

“Those who try to flee will be forced to navigate a city ringed with booby traps, snipers and hidden landmines. Without immediate action to ensure people can flee safely, we are likely to see bloodshed of civilians on a massive scale.”

Even if residents manage to leave Mosul, funding shortages mean that the UN and partner agencies are under equipped to deal with even half the number of people expected to need emergency assistance in the manmade crisis.

The Iraqi military, helped by US advisers, has managed to amass a coalition of around 80,000 fighters for the liberation operation after the army’s humiliating and swift defeat in the city in 2014. Since then, sustained military operations across Syria and Iraq – greatly helped by US-led air strikes – have shrunk Isis’s territory by more than a third.

Iraqi soldiers supporting the government driving an armoured tank in Najaf as part of military parage to review equipment for the planned assault on Mosul (AFP/Getty)

The complex and somewhat competing interests of Kurdish troops, Sunni and Shia militias and the Iraqi army have sparked fears that, once the city is free of militants, the fighting may not be over.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular has reiterated fears of “blood and fire” if Shiite troops and militias take too central a role in the assault on the Sunni-majority city, refusing to remove a small number of Turkish soldiers and Turkish-trained Sunni fighters from their base north of Mosul. The move has angered the Iraqi government, which sees Turkey as undermining its sovereignty.

The offensive proper is expected to begin early November, several Kurdish military officials said.

In a separate incident near Baghdad, an Isis car suicide bomb attack at a military checkpoint killed at least 10 people, the latest in a string of attacks on civilians that observers warn are retaliatory moves designed to show the group is still strong.

The loss of Mosul, from where Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the group's so-called caliphate, would be a “massive blow” to Isis’s ideological stance, Dr Natasha Underhill of Nottingham Trent University said.

“Isis is no longer the powerhouse that it once appeared, and is in fact struggling not only to gain support but to keep the support in place that it currently has,” she said. “It may be the beginning of the end for Isis as we know them.”

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