Iraq has launched a long-awaited offensive to retake Islamic State’s last major stronghold in the country, amid mounting concern over the fate of 1.2 million trapped city residents.
More than two years after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi swept into the northern city and declared a so-called caliphate at a local mosque, thousands of Iraqi ground troops backed by Kurdish fighters advanced toward Mosul early on Monday. The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said it’s backing the campaign with airstrikes, artillery, intelligence and advisers.
The hour has struck. The campaign to liberate Mosul has begun. Beloved people of Mosul, the Iraqi nation will celebrate victory as one “We will soon meet at Mosul to celebrate the victory and will all stand together to punish Islamic State,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, wearing a military uniform, said on state television. “We will restore order and stability in Mosul.”
Victory would all but end Islamic State’s control over territory in OPEC’s second-biggest producer just as the group faces defeats elsewhere in the region. Hours before Abadi’s speech, Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces captured Dabiq, a town of symbolic significance to Islamic State because some Muslims believe a final battle with infidels will take place there. And in Libya, gunmen captured Sirte, a coastal city that had been the group’s main stronghold in the oil-rich country.
Abadi said military and federal police forces were leading the operation, in an apparent effort to ease concern that the participation of pro-Iran Shiite militias might spark a sectarian conflict in the Sunni-dominated city. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in a statement that the offensive is “a decisive moment” in the campaign to deliver Islamic State a lasting defeat.
“We are confident our Iraqi partners will prevail against our common enemy and free Mosul and the rest of Iraq from ISIL’s hatred and brutality,” Carter said, using a common abbreviation for the terrorist group.
About 4,000 Kurdish troops known as Peshmerga made advances east of Mosul, while the Iraqi military took up positions south of the city, according to a statement by the joint command of the armed forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
“I would like to reassure the people of Mosul of the coordination between the Peshmerga and Iraqi army,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, said in a televised speech. “We hope it will be successful, that there will be no kind of revenge and that their dignity will be protected.”
Television footage showed Iraqi tanks advancing, with plumes of black smoke billowing in the distance. Dead bodies were shown lying next to burned out vehicles that the Kurdish Rudaw news network said belonged to Islamic State.
“They were screaming in Arabic,” said one Peshmerga fighter. “I killed them. Only one fought back.” he said. “Long live the Peshmerga!”
As the offensive got under way, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that the operation’s humanitarian consequences “will be massive.”
“Establishing genuinely safe routes out of the city for civilians is now the top priority; nothing is more important,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, the NRC’s country director in Iraq.
Humanitarian agencies predict that more than 1 million people could be affected by the offensive, the United Nations refugees agency said last month. Nearly one in 10 Iraqis have been displaced due to conflict since 2014, it said.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told CNN that while there are “real concerns about the humanitarian situation,” the ultimate aim remains to get Islamic State out of the city. There are UN efforts “to try and, again, be prepared for civilians who want to leave,” he said.
Islamic State dug trenches and rigged roads and buildings with explosives ahead of the expected offensive. U.S. Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said last week that while the campaign will be difficult, Islamic State is demoralized and is facing difficulties “exercising command and control over their own forces.”
Stephen Royale, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks, said he expects the city to fall within two months.
“IS forces are not prepared to stand and take bombardment in the city areas so they tend to move into the periphery,” Royale said. However, the “politics and the aftermath will be a lot more complicated than the actual offensive itself.”
The campaign is likely to stoke tensions between Baghdad and neighboring Turkey. Officials in largely Sunni Turkey last week said their military would join the mission in Mosul, warning of a sectarian civil war if Shiites took the lead role.
“How can Turkey not enter Mosul?,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech in Istanbul on Monday. “Turkey is not responsible for the consequences of an operation in which it wasn’t included.”