EAST OF MOSUL, IRAQ: The offensive to seize back Mosul from Islamic State is going faster than planned, Iraq’s prime minister said on Thursday, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages around the city.
“The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told senior officials who met in Paris to discuss the future of Iraq’s second-largest city via a video conference call.
Abadi announced the start of the offensive to retake Mosul on Monday, two years after the city fell to the militants, who declared from its Grand Mosque a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria.
A US-led coalition that includes France, Italy, Britain, Canada and other Western nations is providing air and ground support to the forces that are closing in on the city.
Mosul is the last big city stronghold held by Islamic State in Iraq. Raqqa is the capital of the group in Syria.
The administration of Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province is now one of the main topics of discussion for world leaders. There are concerns the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni group would cause new sectarian and ethnic violence, fueled by a desire to avenge atrocities inflicted on minority groups.
Nineveh is a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups – Arab, Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis, Shias – with Sunni Arabs making up the overwhelming majority.
Four days into the assault on Mosul, Iraqi government forces and allied Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are steadily recovering outlying territory before the main push into the city begins.
The battle is expected to be the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Around 1.5 million people still live in Mosul and the battle is expected to last weeks or months.
Mortar and Howitzer Fire
An Iraqi army elite unit and Kurdish fighters on Thursday started trying to take back villages north and east of Mosul, according to Kurdish and Iraqi military statements.
Howitzer and mortar fire started at 6:00 a.m. (0300 GMT), hitting a group of villages held by Islamic State about 20 km (13 miles) north and east of Mosul, while helicopters flew overhead, Reuters reporters on the scene said.
“The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL’s movements,” the Kurdish general military command said in a statement announcing the launch of Thursday’s operations.
To the sound of machine gun fire and explosions, dozens of black Humvees of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), mounted with machine guns, headed toward Bartella, the main attack target on the eastern front, a Reuters reporter said.
The militants are using suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and snipers to push back the attack, and are pounding surrounding areas with mortar, a CTS spokesman said at a nearby location.
Bartella is a Christian village whose population fled after Islamic State took over the region.
“Bartella is the eastern gate of Mosul,” said the spokesman, adding that it was the first CTS operation in this battle.
The US-trained CTS has spearheaded most of the offensives against Islamic State over the past year, including the capture of Ramadi and Falluja, west of Baghdad.
The force is deployed on a Kurdish frontline, marking the first joint military operation between the government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
A cloud of black smoke wreathed some frontline villages, probably caused by oil fires, a tactic the militants use to escape air surveillance.