BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces have launched operations to retake Mosul, a city whose capture by the Islamic State group two years ago left the country on the brink of collapse, the prime minister said Monday.
The northern city was where IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria in June 2014.
With the support of Iran and a US-led coalition, Iraqi forces have since regained much of the ground lost to IS and Mosul is the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
“Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh (IS),” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a televised address.
In Washington, the US secretary of defense, Ash Carter said the operations to retake Mosul were key to defeating the jihadist group.
“This is a decisive moment in the campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat,” Carter said in a statement. He also promised continued support for Iraq.
“The United States and the rest of the international coalition stand ready to support Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga fighters and the people of Iraq in the difficult fight ahead,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, The UN deputy Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief voiced grave concern Sunday at risks faced by civilians as operations to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul began.
“I am extremely concerned for the safety of up to 1.5 million people living in Mosul who may be impacted by military operations to retake the city from ISIL,” Stephen O’Brien said, referring to the Islamic State jihadist group.
“Tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be under siege or held as human shields. Thousands may be forcibly expelled or trapped between the fighting lines,” O’Brien added.
The commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces did not divulge details of the latest movements on the ground but forces have recently been tightening the noose around Mosul.
A coalition of myriad and sometimes rival Iraqi forces — including the US-led coalition, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces — will have to fight their way through IS defenses to reach the city, in some cases over distances of dozens of kilometers.
Then they will likely seek to surround the city before launching an assault, marking the start of deadly street fighting with die-hard jihadists.
Abadi vowed that only government forces would enter Mosul, a Sunni-majority city that IS seized with relative ease partly because of local resentment towards the Shiite-dominated security forces.
Shiite militia groups have been accused of serious abuses against Sunni civilians in the course of operations to reconquer territory from IS.
“The force leading liberation operations is the brave Iraqi army with the national police and they are the ones that will enter Mosul, not others,” Abadi said.
Baghdad is also keen to check the influence of the autonomous Kurdish region, which significantly expanded the territory it controls on the back of the 2014 jihadist assault.
The Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary organisation, which is dominated by Tehran-backed militia groups, has made clear it wants to take part in the Mosul operation.
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces have been moving in from the eastern side of the city while a US-led coalition is also providing support in the air and on the ground.
Turkey, which borders northern Iraq, has also offered to join the offensive on Mosul.
The jihadists are not thought to number more than 5,000 and will be vastly outnumbered but the battleground is vast and the area’s ethnic and religious diversity makes it politically complex.
Abadi’s announcement came a day after rebel forces in the Syrian half of IS’ shrinking “caliphate” retook Dabiq, a town which holds crucial ideological significance for the group and where it had promised an apocalyptic battle.
Iraqi forces recently retook Qayyarah, an area some 60 kilometers south of Mosul, setting the stage for the final push on IS’s northern bastion.