BAGHDAD / AP
The Iraqi military backed by US-led coalition aircraft on Thursday launched a long-awaited operation to recapture the northern city of Mosul from IS militants, a military spokesman said.
In the push, Iraqi forces retook several villages on the outskirts of the town of Makhmour, east of Mosul, early in the morning on Thursday and hoisted the Iraqi flag there, according to the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool.
It was not immediately clear how long such a complex and taxing offensive would take. Only recently, Iraqi and US officials refrained to give a specific time on when the Mosul operation could begin, saying it would take many months to prepare Iraq’s still struggling military for the long-anticipated task of retaking the key city.
Some US and Iraqi officials have said it may not even be possible to retake it this year, despite repeated vows by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi.
Iraqi state-run TV interrupted its morning program on Thursday with a series of news alerts announcing the operation and broadcasting patriotic songs and flag-waving video clips.
Rasool told The Associated Press that the US-led international coalition was providing air support but would not divulge more details on the offensive, which he said was dubbed “Operation Conquest.”
Mosul â€” Iraq’s second-largest city â€” fell to IS group during the militants’ June 2014 onslaught that captured large swaths of northern and western Iraq and also neighboring Syria. Mosul, located about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, became also the largest city in the IS group’s self-declared caliphate on the territories the militants control.
Rasool’s declaration came only few days after the United States announced that it has set up a small Marine artillery outpost in northern Iraq to protect a nearby Iraqi military base in Makhmour â€” the likely staging ground for a Mosul assault, located 40 miles (67 kilometers) southeast of the city.
On Saturday, the militants fired two rockets at the base, killing a US Marine and wounding several others.
Despite Thursday’s announcement, the number of Iraqi troops needed to carry out the operation to retake Mosul nearly two years after it fell to IS are not yet in place and training efforts by the US-led coalition are still ongoing.
Under political pressure to show victory, Al Abadi has repeatedly vowed to “liberate” Mosul but US Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress last month that he is “not as optimistic.”
Coalition and Iraqi officials estimate eight to 12 brigades, or an estimated 24,000 to 36,000 troops, will be needed for the Mosul operation.
So far, only 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi troops have been deployed at Makhmour base. The Iraqi military must also clear IS fighters from more than 100 kilometers of territory to ensure reliable supply lines between Makhmour and Baghdad.