Iraqi forces backed by tribal fighters are manoeuvring into position in the western desert bordering Syria to launch an offensive against one of the last bastions of Daesh.
The jihadist group has suffered a string of defeats on the battlefield that have left in tatters its “caliphate”, three years after it was declared. After driving Daesh out of Nineveh province earlier this year, the Iraqi government set its eyes on Hawija, north of Baghdad, as well as the towns of Al-Qaim, Rawa and Anna in the western desert.
On Tuesday an AFP correspondent who toured the region saw several artillery units positioning themselves around Rawa and Anna, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with Syria. Moving in clouds of dust, gunners set up their equipment in the rugged terrain and dug trenches before test-firing mortar rounds.
Further in the distance the infantry deployed, backed by tribal fighters. Sheikh Qatari Kahlan, who commands one of the tribal units, said his forces were ready for battle. “All the tribes wanted to take part to liberate the region and fight against Daesh,” he told AFP. “Tribe members inside Anna and Rawa are giving us information and assuring us that the battle will be ferocious but quick,” he added, pointing an automatic rifle at the horizon. Up ahead a few palm trees dotted an otherwise desert landscape, through which runs an asphalt road.
An Iraqi general, who declined to be named, estimated that “more than 1,500 jihadists” were in Anna, Rawa and Al-Qaim. Al-Qaim lies closer to the Syria border and just across from Deir Ez-Zor province where Daesh jihadists are facing separate offensives from US-supportedSDF and government troops backed by Russia. The Iraqi general said the battle for the three towns could begin after an expected assault on Hawija — 300 kilometres (185 miles) — or simultaneously.
‘We know their methods’
Another Iraqi commander, Qotaiba Assaad, said he expected the offensive to retake Rawa, Anna and Al-Qaim to be “quick and to our advantage”. “We have fought Daesh for three years and we know their methods: car bombs, snipers and bombs,” said Assaad, who set up his unit in Al-Sagra a few kilometres away from Rawa and Anna. Lieutenant Colonel Jamal Amr said huge efforts and “a real coordination between all our forces” are needed to keep the jihadists from across the porous Iraq-Syria border.
The battle for Hawija is expected to be more complicated because of its location in oil-rich Kirkuk province, which is at the centre of a long-running dispute between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and regional Kurdish authorities. An offensive targeting Hawija could also be postponed due to a referendum on Kurdish independence planned for September 25 — which Baghdad has called “unconstitutional” and “untimely”. On Tuesday Iraq’s parliament voted against plans by Kurdish leaders to hold the referendum.
Iraqi forces and paramilitary units announced plans to retake Hawija on September 1, a day after recapturing Tal Afar and weeks after ousting Daesh jihadists from second city Mosul. Daesh once held almost one-third of Iraq’s territory, but the US-led coalition supporting the fight against them said after the fall of Tal Afar that the jihadists were left with no more than 10 percent of that.
Iraqi forces said Tuesday they had seized the main government offices in Mosul and its famed museum as they made steady progress in their battle to retake the city’s west from jihadists.
News of the advances came on the third day of a renewed offensive against Daesh in west Mosul — the largest remaining urban stronghold in the “caliphate” declared by the jihadists in 2014. Supported by the US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began their push against west Mosul on February 19. The advance slowed during several days of bad weather but was renewed on Sunday. Recent advances have brought government troops and police closer to Mosul’s densely populated Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under Daesh rule.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement that federal police and the elite Rapid Response unit had been able to “liberate” the headquarters for the Nineveh provincial government. They also seized control of the Al-Hurriyah bridgehead, it said, in a step towards potentially relinking west Mosul with the city’s east, which government forces seized from the jihadists earlier in the offensive.
Site of artifact destruction
All the bridges crossing the Tigris in Mosul have been damaged or destroyed, and Iraqi forces would either have to repair them or install floating bridges to reconnect the two banks of the river, which divides the city.
Officers said Tuesday that security forces had also managed to recapture the Mosul museum, where the jihadists destroyed priceless artifacts, releasing a video of their rampage in February 2015. The video showed militants at the museum knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces. In another scene a jackhammer was used to deface a large Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological site in the city.
The jihadists’ attacks on ancient heritage in Iraq and Syria have sparked widespread international outrage and fears for some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. The museum was on a police list released Tuesday of sites recently recaptured from Daesh, which also included Mosul’s central bank building, which the jihadists looted along with other banks in 2014, seizing tens of millions of dollars.
Other sites recaptured during the last few days include the provincial police headquarters, the courts complex and the water and electricity directorates. The recent fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. But the number who have fled is still just a fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under Daesh rule.
Iraqi forces launched on Sunday a new push toward the Daesh-held old city center of Mosul, on the western bank of the Tigris river, an Iraqi military spokesman said.
Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward the old center of the city, advancing from the south and the southwest, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state-run television.
According to a Syria & Iraq News source, the Iraqi forces are in close proximity to Mosul’s main government buildings.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19. Their advance in western Mosul paused over the past 48 hours because of bad weather.
Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. and Iraqi air power took control of two districts of eastern Mosul on Saturday after heavy fighting in which they destroyed nine cars deployed by Daesh as suicide bombs, the military said. Infantry and armored division troops also advanced in a nearby neighborhood, destroying three rocket launchers and killing 30 jihadists, it said in a statement said.
Iraqi troops have been fighting for 10 days inside eastern Mosul, trying to expand their small foothold in the city which Daesh has controlled since mid-2014, when its leader declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The nearly four-week campaign to drive Daesh out of the biggest city under its control in either country has brought together an alliance of 100,000 Iraqi fighters, also backed by thousands of Western personnel on the ground. They have faced fierce resistance from a few thousand militants who have deployed hundreds of suicide car bombers and waves of attacks by snipers, assault fighters and rocket teams. Daesh has also used a network of tunnels around the city and merged into the civilian population of 1.5 million people still living there, helping it launch surprise raids and ambushes on the troops.
The military statement said the Counter Terrorism Service took control of the districts of al-Qadisiya al-Thania, which it moved into on Friday, and adjacent al-Arbajiya. Further south, but still on the eastern fringes, troops from the First Infantry and Ninth Armoured divisions attacked the jihadists in the Salam neighborhood. Security forces and army troops are also advancing on southern and northern fronts close to the city, aiming to open new fronts inside Mosul to put further pressure on the jihadists.
The attacking forces include Iraqi army troops and special forces and federal police units. Outside the city, Kurdish peshmerga forces are holding territory to the northeast and mainly Shi’ite paramilitary forces are deployed to the west. They are supported by U.S.-led air power, including jets and Apache helicopters, and Western military advisers who have accompanied Iraqi forces on the edge of Mosul.
The International Organisation for Migration says so far 49,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, the most complex military operation in more than a decade of turmoil since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein.
Security forces managed on Sunday to put down a complex Daesh state attack on the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as clashes with militants erupted for the third straight day. Local security forces said they repelled another attack early in the day, clashed intermittently with the fighters and ferreted out militants who remained in the city.
The three-day assault was a show of resilience by Daesh, launched days after an array of U.S.-backed Iraqi forces began a long-planned offensive to retake Mosul, about 100 miles northwest of Kirkuk and the group’s last remaining stronghold in the country. Daesh has been fighting back against the offensive by sending suicide bombers in explosive-laden cars charging into columns of advancing Iraqi forces. The militants also set fire to sulfur stocks at a factory south of Mosul, sending up a plume of noxious smoke that drifted over the nearby Qayyarah military base, where U.S. and Iraqi troops involved in the Mosul offensive are stationed. A regional health official on Sunday said about 500 people had been sickened by the smoke and treated at a hospital, adding that he didn’t know of any deaths from the fumes.
The assault on Kirkuk began with nearly 100 Daesh fighters fanning out into the city on Friday, using suicide bombers and gunmen and targeting police buildings and patrols. They battled security forces for two days. By late Saturday, officials said they had mostly cleared the attackers and were back in control of the city. However, Daesh launched fresh attacks late Saturday and early Sunday. Before dawn, Kurdish Peshmerga forces defeated Daesh jihadists who were driving armored vehicles and Humvees, said Kamal Karkookli, a Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk. Police killed a suicide bomber in the city center, local security officials said. Some Peshmerga units were redeployed from the Mosul front to aid security operations in the Kirkuk area, said Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet, a Peshmerga spokesman. “We have no choice. We pulled some forces from front lines to support Kirkuk,” he said.
A senior U.S. official on Saturday said the Kirkuk attacks had no major impact on the Mosul operations and a Peshmerga commander near the front said the troops sent to Kirkuk had finished their mission in Mosul before being called to Kirkuk. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil on Sunday, his second day in Iraq, to get battlefield assessments of the fight against Daesh. Mr. Carter met with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and other officials, as well as troops. He was expected to raise the issue of a large group of Sunni Arab fighters trained in Bashiqa by the Turks. Baghdad has said Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq violates Iraqi sovereignty. Mr. Carter on Friday hinted that he could broker a deal between the two countries after a brief visit to Ankara and that Turkey could be allowed to contribute to the operation in Mosul pending approval from Baghdad. But on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the offer, saying he didn’t need the Turks’ help.
In Kirkuk, local police Capt. Star Muhammad said fighters were likely still hiding in the city. “There are suicide bombers,” he said in front of a government building pocked by bullets. When the attack began on Friday, some militants set up firing positions from a police station across the street. Their goal may have been to break into the jail next to the station to free comrades, local residents said. Abu Mohammad, 51 years old, scrubbed the inside of his barber shop in a building across from the police station that was targeted, the walls dusty and sooty from the clashes. Two bullet holes had pierced his glass front door. “I was at home and watched all this on television,” he said of the attack. “I’ve not been here for two days.” He said the repulsed attack showed people from Kirkuk aren’t scared of Daesh anymore. “From our point of view, Daesh are like ants now,” he said proudly, using another name for the group. “We have belief in our hearts. We are Muslims and we don’t want to give our city to unbelievers.”
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.