The offensive to liberate Mosul from Daesh control has begun, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a televised statement early Monday.
“Our dearest people in Nineveh province, the victory bell has rung, and the operations to liberate Mosul have begun,” he said. “I am announcing today the beginning of these heroic operations to liberate you from the brutality and terrorism of Daesh. God willing, we will meet soon on the ground of Mosul where we will all celebrate the liberation and your freedom.”
Al-Abadi emphasized that only the Iraqi armed forces and police will take part in Mosul operation, implying no involvement of Turkish, American or Iranian military forces.
The fight is expected to last weeks, if not months, and if the battles to wrest Falluja and Ramadi from Daesh’ grip are indicators, Mosul will be a messy melee. The assault’s buildup has been ongoing for some time. US-led coalition and Iraqi forces have hammered Daesh targets with airstrikes for more than a year.
The Nineveh Liberation Operations Center, which was set up to coordinate the offensive, has brought in dozens of American and British advisers. A US artillery unit has provided cover for operations south of Mosul.
On Daesh’ side of the fight, there have been reports of a growing network of tunnels leaving the city. The terrorist outfit has also allowed wounded fighters to leave Mosul and freed prisoners jailed for low-level offenses. The militants were also taking measures to combat the effectiveness of airstrikes. Skirmishes flared outside Mosul in the days leading up to the battle, and Sunday brought several signs that the fight for Mosul was near, including an airstrike on one of the city’s main bridges. Not only did Abadi declare, “God willing, the decisive battle will begin soon,” but leaflets proclaiming, “It’s victory time,” also rained over the city Sunday.
US playing supporting role
The 30,000-strong force tasked with recapturing the largest city under the terrorist group’s control comprises many groups, with the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga making up the bulk.
Iraqi security forces are expected to lead the ground campaign with the backing of coalition airstrikes and advisers, US officials have said. The US recently announced the deployment of 600 additional troops to aid in the city’s capture. The deployment brings the number of US personnel to more than 5,200, the Pentagon says. “There are no major objectives after that. This is it. This is the last big holdout in Iraq for ISIL,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, using another acronym for the terrorist group.
Before becoming the top prize in the Iraqi portion of the militant group’s self-declared caliphate, Mosul was inhabited by more than 2 million people. About 1 million residents remain today — in the clutches of an organization known to use civilians as shields.
Potential humanitarian disaster
The UN refugee agency says most of the remaining residents could flee once the fighting is underway, creating what a UN representative says could be “one of the largest man-made displacement crises of recent times.” Camps are being set up to accommodate the refugees, who will need transport and basic necessities once the Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga screen them as they leave the city.
Al-Abadi told CNN in September that forces “are planning for a fight for many months.” Some Peshmerga commanders have predicted it will take at least three months to clear the city as Daesh leaves sleeper cells behind. Others expect a quicker victory, with Daesh leaders retreating to the desert west of Mosul.
Bracing for the offensive, Daesh in recent days allowed wounded fighters in Mosul to move to Raqqa, Syria, the group’s de facto capital, a source inside Mosul said. Daesh also released some low-level prisoners, including those jailed for their beards, cigarettes or clothing, the source added.
A tunnel network large enough to accommodate motorbikes stretches from the outskirts of the city to the nearby village of Hamdania, according to the source. US military officials estimate there are 3,500 to 5,000 Daesh fighters in Mosul. Daesh supporters put the number at 7,000.
Plumes of black smoke rose from oil-filled trenches on fire outside northeastern Mosul, an attempt by Daesh to obscure its fighters’ positions during airstrikes, military sources said.
In northern Iraq, the main road to Mosul is dotted with villages deserted in expectation of the fight.
At checkpoints, Daesh fighters wore masks to disguise their identities in what is seen as a sign of decreasing confidence, as well as concerns about retaliation from Mosul residents. There is concern among diplomats and Kurdish officials about plans for stabilizing and governing Mosul once Daesh is evicted, and according to US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a holding force of about 15,000 Sunni elements was being trained and equipped to secure the city once it’s liberated.
The push to Mosul is being felt more than 200 miles south, in Baghdad, where Daesh has launched suicide attacks. At least 34 people were killed in a Saturday suicide bombing at a Shiite gathering in the capital, police sources said.
Daesh’ last stand in Iraq
Mosul, a city almost 3,000 years old, would represent Daesh’ last stand in Iraq. Though Daesh seeks to create an Islamic caliphate, it has lost considerable territory in the past two years, being driven out of Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah.
Kurdish forces have dug in to the east, north and west of Mosul, and Iraqi forces have been moving slowly from the south.
Iraqi security forces also recently recaptured the Qayyara oil refinery and seized the Qayyara airbase, Iraq’s third-largest. The airbase is expected to be a vital staging ground in the battle for Mosul.
On Friday, al-Abadi visited oil-rich Kirkuk province, where he met with leaders ahead of the operation to liberate the Daesh-controlled city of Hawija, about 100 miles south of Mosul. It has been under Daesh control since 2014, and Iraqi security forces estimate about 1,200 Daesh fighters occupy the city and nearby villages. Al-Abadi inspected military units and spoke to security officials. He said he was preparing for a military operation to take back more cities from Daesh.
Having nearly cleared Daesh from Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, the retaking of Hawija would be a coup as it would lessen or eliminate the threat to Iraqi and Peshmerga forces who would have their backs to the city during the battle for Mosul.
Sources: CNN/Syria & Iraq News