HAMAM AL-ALIL / AP
US-backed Iraqi forces launched a large-scale military operation on Sunday to dislodge IS militants from the western half of Mosul city, a battle that is expected to be prolonged and difficult due to a densely packed civilian population and older, narrower streets.
In a briefed televised speech on state TV, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation, saying the government forces were moving to “liberate the people of Mosul from IS oppression and terrorism forever.”. Al-Abadi called on security forces to deal with civilians properly and respect human rights.
Plumes of smoke were seen rising into the sky early Sunday morning as US-led coalition jets struck militant positions southwest of Mosul and militarized police fired artillery towards the city. Heavily armed police units were getting ready to move north with their armored vehicles from a base just southwest of the city.
“This is zero hour and we are going to end this war, God willing,” said Mahmoud Mansour, a police officer, as he prepared to move out.
The immediate objective of the operation was to take the villages on the southern outskirts of Mosul airport, a police spokesman told The Associated Press. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity in line with standard procedures. Police units quickly moved into the village of Athba about three miles southwest of the city’s airport, encountering only light resistance, according to an AP reporter on the scene. Separately, the army’s 9th armored division moved into the village of Bakhira, also southwest of the city, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense said.
Shortly after the announcement, the United Nations warned that hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside their houses “are at extreme risk” with dwindling fuel and food supplies and scare drinking water and electricity.
“The situation is distressing. People, right now, are in trouble,” Lise Grande, Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement. “We are hearing reports of parents struggling to feed their children and to heat their homes,” Grande said.
Citing informants from inside the western side, the UN said nearly half of all food shops were closed and bakeries had shut down due to a lack of fuel and an inability to purchase costly flour. Prices of kerosene and cooking gas have skyrocketed and many of the most destitute families are burning wood, furniture, plastic or garbage for cooking and heating.
“Children and their families are starting to face critical shortages of safe drinking water,” Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Representative in Iraq, was quoted as saying in the statement. “Three out of five people now depend on untreated water from wells for cooking and drinking as water systems and treatment plants have been damaged by fighting or run out of chlorine.”
The humanitarian agencies were gearing up to aid 250,000 to 400,000 civilians who may flee due to fighting, the statement said. The UN estimates that about 750,000 civilians may be left in western Mosul.
The Commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, hailed the Iraqi forces in a statement as an “increasingly capable, formidable, and professional force.” “Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world, and the Iraqi forces have risen to the challenge,” said Townsend. “They have taken the fight to the enemy and sacrificed their blood for the people of Iraq and the rest of the world.”
Eastern Mosul was retaken from IS by Iraqi forces last month after a three-month battle, but the west of the city remains in the hands of the extremists. Unlike the east, much of the west is composed of old houses forming narrow alleyways, making the use of armored vehicles more difficult and promising a tougher fight.
Iraqi special operations forces, regular army and federal police units are taking part in the offensive along with government-sanctioned paramilitary forces, made up mainly of Shiite militias, operating on the city’s outskirts.
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the last IS urban stronghold in the country, fell into the hands of the extremists in the summer of 2014, when the group captured large swaths of northern and western Iraq.