Battle to drive ISIL from Mosul has begun, Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi says

KHAZIR, IRAQ — Iraq’s long-touted offensive for the northern city of Mosul has begun, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said early Monday morning.

The U.S.-backed operation, the biggest yet against ISIL militants, aims to push the group out of its de facto capital in Iraq. More than a civilians are believed to be still trapped inside the city.

Late Sunday, dozens of ambulances were lined up at checkpoints on the edges of Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan on Sunday, ready to ferry out casualties. Thousands of Iraqi troops position for the in recent weeks, and new military staging areas have sprung up along front lines.

At one, in a hamlet near Khazir, east of Mosul, Maj. Salam Jassim, a commander with Iraq’s elite forces, and his men were waiting for the order for “zero hour.” In emptied by fighting, entertained themselves with cards and dominoes. Battle plans were drawn in black marker on walls and plastic tables.

The Mosul offensive marks a showdown in the militants’ last major stronghold in Iraq and the city that has come to symbolize the group’s rise here. It was in Mosul’s Great Mosque that ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his self-proclaimed caliphate more than two years ago.

But since then, the group’s grip has slowly crumbled. Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah have been clawed back by Iraqi forces, albeit with a heavy reliance on U.S.-led airstrikes.

It’s only a matter of time before Mosul is recaptured, too, Iraqi commanders say.

“We’ll take it,” Jassim said, sipping on a can of Tiger Energy Drink – a favorite of Iraqi forces. “There’s no doubt.”

Troops have massed to the north, south and east of the city in recent weeks.

Trucks packed with Iraqi soldiers and military vehicles have clogged the roads as forces have moved into place. Tanks, armored vehicles and weaponry have been hauled nearly 250 miles from the capital, Baghdad.

For the first 48 hours, the offensive on the eastern front will be led by forces known as peshmerga, Iraqi military officers said.

“Then they will stop,” said Brig. Gen. Haider Obaidi, another commander with Iraq’s special forces. “We’ll start after them and move after them to support them.”

Federal police and Iraqi army units will move up the main highway from Baghdad, while Shiite militia forces are to focus on Tal Afar to the west and the town of Hawijah to the southeast. Kurdish peshmerga forces, Sunni fighters and the Iraqi army will also attack from the north.

Opinions are split on just how long and grinding the battle will be. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to have the city back under control by the end of the year.

But Jassim is not sure that’s possible, with booby traps and explosive devices expected to slow the way.

Civilians, too, will complicate the battle. Between 1.2 million and 1.8 million are still inside the city, he said.

To avoid a humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government has asked civilians to stay in their homes, complicating air support and operations to clear neighborhoods of militants.

“The operation will take much longer because of this,” Obaidi said. “For their safety, but it also means each neighborhood needs to be surrounded and searched as we clear it.”

Still, the U.S.-led coalition will give closer support than in any other operation, he said, and Apache helicopters will probably be used. On Sunday night, preparatory airstrikes rattled windows in the special forces base near Khazir.

The coalition has requested that the airspace be cleared of Iraqi jets, whose air support will be limited to the areas where Shiite militias are on the ground, Obaidi said.

“All the sky will be for the coalition,” he added. The side of the city will be left largely open, which may make for a less protracted fight inside than if it was besieged. “We’ll try to give them an to run to Syria,” he said of the militants.

Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, said that even if the western side is left open, it doesn’t mean a safe escape for ISIL. “If we do that, then this area will become a killing zone as we target them with our aircraft,” he said.
For the soldiers, for the moment, it’s a waiting game.

Mohammed al-Kabouli, a 30-year-old special forces soldier, complained as he sat in the shade of a black Humvee.

“The hardest thing is the waiting,” he said. “Our job is to advance, not to do nothing. There aren’t even any good houses here,” he said of the village where the troops had temporarily commandeered homes long stripped bare by looters, down to every door. “Men don’t die in bed,” a soldier had scrawled on one wall.

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