Iraqi, Kurdish Fighters Make Gains in Battle to Retake Mosul From Islamic State
By Jamie Dettmer October 18, 2016
Iraqi and Kurdish forces say they have retaken a dozen villages outside Mosul, as they press to reclaim Iraq's second largest city from Islamic State militants.
The long-awaited offensive, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, and involving Sunni tribal forces and Shi'ite militias, continued on its second day Tuesday. Fighting remains on the outskirts of Mosul, and the advances on the three fronts are moving at different paces.
U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking in Washington Tuesday, said Mosul will be a "difficult fight" but expressed confidence that IS will be defeated in the city.
"Perhaps a million civilians are still living there so in addition to rooting our ISIL, our focus jointly is on the safety and humanitarian aid for civilians who are escaping the fight," he said.
East of Mosul, the Kurdish peshmerga forces advanced quickly, but in the south Iraqi armed forces have been making slower progress because they have more ground to cover, having begun their operations 40 kilometers from the edge of Mosul.
On the first day of the offensive, Iraqi regulars along with Shi'ite militiamen overran three villages. Their target Tuesday is the village of Zawiya.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said on Monday the coalition freed 200 square kilometers, including nine villages. He declared "Mosul will be liberated," and added that his fighters are doing their best to keep the city from becoming like war-battered Aleppo in Syria.
Iraqi officials say there will be no sustained airstrikes on the city center to avoid high casualties among the more than one million civilians still in the city.
This is the largest and most complex military operation in Iraq since U.S. combat forces left the country five years ago – it involves 94,000 Iraqi-led troops and about 90 coalition and Iraqi war planes, as well as the Sunni and Shi'ite militias. However, it is raising concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area and aid agencies are warning of a likely humanitarian crisis. IS has held the city for more than two years.
'Ahead of schedule'
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said Tuesday the operation is "on or ahead of schedule" and that the militants are not able to stop the Iraqi and Kurdish forces with small arms and improvised explosives.
While they can't stop the advances, they can slow them. Movement forward by all coalition forces is methodical, with commanders opting for caution as they come under mortar and sniper fire.
On the southern front, Iraqi troops are moving painstakingly into the village of Abbas, which is larger than most of its neighbors. Pockets of IS militants have been mounting lightning attacks. Iraqi troops are also fearful of improvised bombs, which have been planted in the main thoroughfares.
In the east, there were conflicting reports about why some Kurdish peshmerga Tuesday appeared to have paused their advance. Some Kurdish commanders said they had done so to allow Iraqi forces, who are earmarked to enter the city, to move forward; others said they were in the process of re-ordering their own units.
Peshmerga commander Bakhtyar Sadeeq told VOA: "There is no halt in our operation. The peshmerga forces paused moving forward because we coordinate with the Iraqi military. We have achieved our goal in the first day. Now the Iraqi army will take it from there. In fact, Iraqi troops have made significant advances today."
There have been several reports of IS suicide bombers driving cars packed with explosives at their foes. Soon after the peshmerga offensive began early Monday with Kurdish troops moving over dirt mounds marking the front-line between them and IS fighters on the eastern or Khazir front, IS offered stiff resistance, trying to strike back with mortar fire and car bombs. Two cars driving at speed at the peshmerga were destroyed by airstrikes but another managed to get close to the Kurds before being detonating, say commanders.
Long fight expected
U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve tamped down expectations of a quick victory at Mosul. "This may prove to be a long and tough battle, but the Iraqis have prepared for it and we will stand by them," he said.
The peshmerga Chief of General Staff, Jamal Iminiki, also cautioned reporters not to expect a rapid collapse of IS resistance.
IS militants, who have been on the back foot in Iraq and some parts of Syria in recent months, have had plenty of time to prepare and have constructed elaborate defenses, including a network of tunnels, in the city. Up to 5,000 IS fighters are in Mosul, one U.S. military official estimates, however the terror group's supporters put the number at 7,000.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday U.S. troops are on the Mosul outskirts in a support role, but that "Iraqis are in the lead."
"Americans are in harm's way as part of this fight," he said, but most are "far away" from the front lines. U.S. officials say there are more than 3,000 Western military advisers and special forces commandos in northern Iraq.
Monday and Tuesday, Iraqi planes continued to drop leaflets warning civilians in Mosul and outlying villages of the offensive, urging them to stay indoors and to avoid any IS positions, which may prove difficult, with IS fighters throughout the city.
The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called on all participating forces to ensure the safety of civilians in Mosul and Iraqi commanders say they are taking steps to help civilians escape.
Sirwan Kajjo and National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.
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