Iraqi forces yet to seal off Mosul as battle enters second month
The US-backed offensive to crush the Islamic State (IS) group in its last major stronghold in Iraq entered the second month on Thursday as forces, arrayed against the hardline Sunni group, finally sought to seal off Mosul from all sides.
The militants have been steadily retreating from areas around Mosul into the city since the battle started on October 17, with air and ground support from a US-led coalition.
An elite army unit, the Counter Terrorism Service, breached the city’s eastern limits for the first time two weeks ago. Other army units are yet to enter from the northern and the southern sides.
Another breakthrough came on Wednesday, when Iranian-backed militia announced the capture of an airbase west of Mosul – a part of their campaign to choke off the route between the Syrian and Iraqi parts of the caliphate IS had declared in 2014.
The capture of the Tal Afar base also offers the mainly Shi’ite forces a launchpad for operations against the IS targets in Syria and highlights the potential for the Mosul operation to reshape strategic power across northern Iraq.
To the east of Mosul, Kurdish peshmerga forces are also capturing territory well outside the traditional borders of their autonomous region.
The offensive to retake Mosul, the largest city under the IS control in Iraq and Syria, is turning into the biggest battle in Iraq’s turbulent history since the US-led invasion that toppled the Saddam Hussein government in 2003.
Iraqi authorities have declined to give a timeline for the recapture of the entire city, but it is likely to last for months.
The militants have launched waves of counter-attacks against the advancing forces, tying them down in lethal urban combat in narrow streets still full of residents.
The city’s capture is seen as crucial towards dismantling the caliphate, and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to have withdrawn to a remote area near the Syrian border, has told his fighters there can be no retreat. Iraqi military estimates put the number of IS fighters in the city at 5,000 to 6,000. Facing them is a 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government forces, Kurdish fighters and Shi’ite paramilitary units.
MILITANTS PROVE RESILIENT
Iraqi authorities have not published a casualty toll for the campaign overall – either for security forces, civilians or IS fighters. The warring sides claim to have inflicted thousands of casualties in enemy ranks. Nearly 57,000 people have been displaced because of the fighting, moving from villages and towns around the city to government-held areas, according to UN estimates.
The figure does not include the thousands of people rounded up in villages around Mosul and forced to accompany IS fighters to cover their retreat towards the city.
In some cases, men of fighting age were separated from those groups and summarily killed, according to residents and rights groups. The Human Rights Watch said on Thursday more than 300 former police officers were expected to have been killed last month and buried in a mass grave near the town of Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul.
Government forces are still fighting in a dozen of about 50 neighborhoods on the eastern part of Mosul, which is divided by the Tigris river that runs through its centre.
The militants are dug in among the civilians as a defense tactic to hamper airstrikes, moving around the city through tunnels, driving suicide car bombs into advancing troops and hitting them with sniper and mortar fire.
The resilience of IS’s defenses has forced a greater involvement from the coalition made up mainly of western nations, including Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Australia.
CANADIANS IN COMBAT
Canadian military trainers, operating with the Kurdish fighters, have clashed several dozen times with IS militants over the last month, defence officials said in Ottawa on Wednesday. On three occasions, the troops were forced to use anti-armor rockets to destroy suspected car bombs, said Major-General Michael Rouleau, commander of Canada’s special forces.
The United States has also deployed Apache helicopters to support Iraqi troops engaged in urban warfare in eastern Mosul. The forces taking part in the fighting have different and sometime conflicting agendas that could complicate the continuation of the battle or the stabilization of the region of Mosul after the IS’s defeat.
NINEVEH IS MOSAIC
The Nineveh region, surrounding Mosul, is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities –Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites – though Sunni Arabs comprise the overwhelming majority.
The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) suggested on Wednesday it would try to expand the area it rules in northern Iraq to include surrounding villages and towns captured by Kurdish fighters from the IS, andBut it said the agreement did not cover territory taken by peshmerga fighters from Islamic State forces between 2014 and the start of the Mosul campaign last month, which includes the contested region of Kirkuk.
A peep into baghdadi’s life in strife-torn city
- IS chief Baghdadi has become suspicious of people close to him
- He lives underground and has tunnels that stretch to different areas
- He doesn’t sleep without his suicide bomber vest so he can set it off if captured
- A text message, which Reuters has seen, was one of many describing what’s happening inside the Islamic State as Iraqi, Kurdish and American troops began their campaign to retake the group’s stronghold of Mosul
- The message states that defectors or informants were regularly being executed
- However, the news agency couldn’t independently confirm the information in the messages