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QAYYARAH, Iraq, Oct 18, (Agencies): Iraqi forces were making gains as tens of thousands of fighters advanced on Mosul Tuesday in an unprecedented offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State group.
With the crucial battle in its second day, Iraqi commanders said progress was being made as fighters pushed on two main fronts against the jihadists’ last stronghold in Iraq. The US military, which is leading a coalition providing air and ground support, said Iraqi forces even looked “ahead of schedule” but senior Western officials warned the battle would be long and difficult.
Advancing in armoured convoys across the dusty plains surrounding Mosul, forces moved into villages defended by pockets of IS fighters after intensive aerial bombardment. At the main staging base for government troops in Qayyarah south of Mosul, federal police were rotating in and out of the front line. As Apache attack helicopters flew overhead, ambulances brought the wounded back from the battle.
Two armoured vehicles bearing US flags drove by, apparently carrying American military personnel. One manning a gun turret flashed the victory sign. Speaking to AFP from inside Mosul, resident Abu Saif said heavy smoke was hanging over the city as the jihadists burned tyres to shield themselves from air strikes. While the sounds of explosions could be heard coming from outside the city, its streets were eerily quiet, the 47-year-old former company manager said.
“The streets are empty, the people have been staying at home since the strikes started yesterday,” Abu Saif said. “There is this happiness inside us … because we feel that we are about to be rescued,” he said.
“But we are scared that DAESH (IS) can still carry out acts of revenge against the population.” Kuwait has meanwhile, delivered humanitarian aid to displaced residents of the Iraqi Nineveh Governorate, currently living in Irbil city. Kuwait provided 2,500 food baskets for displaced residents of Mosul city, Kuwait’s Consul General in Irbil Dr Omar Al-Kandari told KUNA Tuesday. He added that this stage involved delivering 50,000 baskets for all cities in Kurdistan region.
Those in Mosul are going through difficult times as the battle to liberate the city from the so-called Islamic State (IS) has started, said Al-Kandari. The aid will also include urgent medical care, he noted. The long-awaited Mosul offensive was launched on Monday, with some 30,000 federal forces leading Iraq’s largest military operation since the 2011 pullout of US troops. Retaking Mosul would deprive IS of the last major Iraqi city under its control, dealing a fatal blow to the “caliphate” the jihadists declared two years ago after seizing large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Iraqi commanders said IS fighters were hitting back with suicide car bomb attacks but that the offensive was going as planned. “Many villages have already been liberated,” said Sabah al-Numan, the spokesman of the elite counter-terrorism service. “Iraqi forces have achieved their goals and even more, but we’re careful to stick to the plan and not rush this.”
The two main fronts are south of Mosul, where forces are moving from Qayyarah, and east, where another push involving Kurdish peshmerga fighters is under way. In the south, forces inching forward along the Tigris river were training their sights on a village called Hammam al-Alil, while units east of Mosul entered Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s biggest Christian town. Iraqi forces have significant ground to cover before reaching the boundaries of the city, which IS is defending with berms, bombs and burning oil trenches. IS forces are vastly outnumbered, with the US military estimating 3,000 to 4,500 jihadists in and around Mosul. A video released Tuesday by the IS-linked Amaq news agency showed masked fighters in battledress patrolling a deserted, dimly lit thoroughfare in what it said was Mosul. “America will be defeated in Iraq and will leave, God willing, again — humiliated, wretched, dragging its tail in defeat,” one of the fighters said to camera.
The US-led coalition said strikes destroyed 52 targets on the first day of the operation. “Early indications are that Iraqi forces have met their objectives so far, and that they are ahead of schedule for this first day,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said. Most of the coalition’s support has come in the shape of air strikes and training, but US, British and French special forces are also on the ground to advise local troops. “It could be a long battle, it’s not a blitzkrieg … It’s a lengthy affair (lasting) several weeks, maybe months,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris. France will host an international meeting Thursday on the political future of Mosul, while the coalition’s defence ministers will meet in Paris next Tuesday to assess progress on the military front. Aid groups are bracing for a potentially massive humanitarian crisis, with some warning on Tuesday they were preparing for the possible use of chemical weapons by IS. Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and the UN fears that up to a million people could be forced from their homes by the fighting.
“There are real fears that the offensive to retake Mosul could produce a humanitarian catastrophe, resulting in one of the largest man-made displacement crises in recent years,” warned William Spindler, spokesman for the UN refugee agency. Both the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration raised concerns of IS using chemical weapons.
The Red Cross was training healthcare workers and providing equipment to facilities around Mosul “that would be able to absorb the cases of people contaminated,” Robert Mardini of the group’s Near and Middle East division told reporters in Geneva. Iraqi troops and police have been joined on the battlefront by an array of sometimes rival forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters and Iranbacked Shiite militia.
IS once controlled more than a third of Iraq’s territory but its selfproclaimed “state” has been shrinking steadily. Experts warn that the jihadists are likely to increasingly turn to insurgent tactics as they lose ground. The group has claimed a string of deadly suicide bombings in Baghdad in recent days. IS has also organised or inspired a wave of attacks in Western cities and on Tuesday the European Union’s security commissioner raised concerns over the potential impact of Mosul’s fall. “The retaking of the IS’ northern Iraq stronghold, Mosul, may lead to the return to Europe of violent IS fighters,” Julian King told German daily Die Welt. He said even a handful of jihadists returning would pose a “serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for.”
Europe faces a new influx of Islamic State jihadists if Iraqi forces retake the group’s stronghold Mosul, officials and analysts warned Tuesday, adding to fears on a continent battered by a string of Islamist attacks. Thousands of Europeans have left for Iraq and Syria over the last two years to wage jihad, but after the IS suffered a string of territorial defeats this year in both countries, some of its fighters have begun returning to the continent.
As Iraqi forces press their offensive in Mosul, the “caliphate” declared two years ago by the IS, experts urged Europe to prepare itself for more battlehardened jihadists ready to launch attacks back home. “The retaking of the IS’ northern Iraq stronghold, Mosul, may lead to the return to Europe of violent IS fighters,” the EU’s commissioner for security Julian King told German daily Die Welt. King thought it was unlikely that there would be a mass exodus of IS fighters from Mosul to Europe but he stressed that even a handful of jihadists returning would pose a “serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for”.