Iraqi fighters clear Mosul’s eastern neighborhoods
AIN ISSA, Syria: US-backed Kurdish-Arab forces launched an offensive Sunday on the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqa, upping pressure on the jihadists who are already battling Iraqi troops in Mosul.
The start of the assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came as Iraqi forces fought inside Mosul for the third day running amid fierce jihadist resistance.
The two cities are the last major urban centers under IS control after the jihadists suffered a string of territorial losses in Iraq and Syria over the past year.
The US-led coalition battling IS is backing both assaults, hoping to deal a knockout blow to the self-styled “caliphate” it declared in mid-2014.
SDF commanders announced the start of the Raqa operation in Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers north of the city.
“The major battle to liberate Raqa and its surroundings has begun,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said.
Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” involves some 30,000 fighters and began on Saturday night, Ahmed said.
SDF forces are advancing on three fronts, from Ain Issa and Tal Abyad to the north of Raqa, and from the village of Makman to the east.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP forces would first seize areas around Raqa before taking the city itself.
“The fight will not be easy, and will require accurate and careful operations because IS will defend its bastion knowing that the loss of Raqa will mean it is finished in Syria,” Sello said.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter echoed that sentiment.
“As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is necessary to end the fiction of ISIL’s caliphate and disrupt the group’s ability to carry out terror attacks against the United States, our allies and our partners,” Carter said, using an alternative name for IS.
An AFP correspondent in Ain Issa Sunday saw dozens of SDF fighters heading for the front line. Near Ain Issa, the AFP correspondent saw at least one soldier who had US markings on his helmet with SDF fighters. According to an SDF source, 50 US military advisers would be involved in the operation, particularly to guide air strikes.
Driving IS from Mosul and Raqa has been the endgame since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against it in summer 2014.
In Mosul, Iraqi forces were clearing eastern neighborhoods, nearly three weeks into the offensive there.
“Resistance is very heavy and they (IS) have suffered major losses,” Staff Lieutenant General Abdelghani al-Assadi of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service told AFP.
Soldiers from the army’s 9th Armored Division also battled jihadists in a southeastern neighborhood, an AFP correspondent reported.
IS has responded to the Mosul assault with a string of diversionary attacks. It claimed responsibility for suicide bombings on Sunday in Tikrit and Samarra, two cities north of Baghdad. Officials said at least 25 people were killed and more than 50 wounded.
On Monday, Amnesty International said that Iraqi Kurdish forces have driven out hundreds of Arabs from Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, and destroyed their homes, apparently in retaliation for an attack by IS on October 21.