KHAZIR, Iraq: As a major Iraqi offensive moved ever closer to Mosul on Wednesday, Jihadists with the Islamic State group have started shaving their beards and changing hideouts, residents said.
With pressure building on the 10th day of the Mosul assault, officials from the 60-nation anti-IS coalition were already looking ahead to the next target — the Islamic State group’s other major stronghold of Raqa in Syria.
Recent advances on the eastern front have brought elite Iraqi forces to within five kilometers of Mosul, and residents reached by AFP said the jihadists seemed to be preparing for an assault on the city itself.
About 3,000 to 5,000 IS fighters are believed to be inside Mosul alongside more than a million trapped civilians.
Residents and military officials said many IS fighters had relocated within Mosul, moving from the east to their traditional bastions on the western bank of the Tigris river, closer to escape routes to Syria.
“I saw some Daesh (IS) members and they looked completely different from the last time I saw them,” eastern Mosul resident Abu Saif said. “They had trimmed their beards and changed their clothes. They must be scared… they are also probably preparing to escape the city.”
The sounds of fighting on the northern and eastern fronts of the Mosul offensive could now be heard inside the city, residents said, and US-led coalition aircraft were flying lower over it than usual.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters have been advancing on Mosul from the south, east and north. The assault is backed by air and ground support from the US-led coalition — which also includes Britain and France — which launched a campaign against IS two years ago.
Iraqi federal forces, allied with Kurdish peshmerga fighters, have taken a string of towns and villages in a cautious but steady advance over the past week, in the face of shelling, sniper fire and suicide car bombings.
Both US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and British counterpart Michael Fallon said Wednesday they expected an offensive on Raqa to be launched within weeks.
“That has long been our plan and we will be capable of resorting both,” Carter told NBC News before arriving in Brussels for a two-day meeting of NATO defense chiefs.
If Mosul falls, Raqa will be the only major city in either Syria or Iraq under IS control, the vestige of a cross-border “caliphate” the jihadists declared after seizing large parts of both countries in mid-2014.
An offensive against Raqa is likely to be far more complicated than the assault on Mosul, however: unlike in Iraq, the coalition does not have a strong ally on the ground in Syria.
US President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said in a statement, urging “close coordination” between the two countries to “apply sustained pressure on ISIL in Syria to reduce threats to the United States, Turkey, and elsewhere.”
Aid workers have warned of a major potential humanitarian crisis once fighting begins inside Mosul itself and civilians were already leaving in growing numbers.