On Thursday 20 October, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi disclosed that the offensive to seize back Mosul from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group was going faster than planned, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages around the city.
Speaking via a video conference call to senior officials who met in Paris in order to discuss the future of Iraq’s second-largest city, the Prime Minister disclosed “the forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we though and more quickly than we had programmed.” Four days into the assault on Mosul, Iraqi government forces and allied Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are steadily recovering outlying territory before the main push into the city begins.
According to Kurdish and Iraqi military statements, on Thursday, an Iraqi army elite unit and Kurdish fighters started trying to take back villages north and east of Mosul. Sources on the ground have disclosed that howitzer and mortar fire started at 6:00 AM (0300 GMT), hitting a group of villages held by IS about 20 km (13 miles) north and east of Mosul, while helicopters flew overhead. In a statement announcing the launch of Thursday’s operations, the Kurdish general military disclosed that “the objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL’s (IS) movements.”
Sources have disclosed that dozens of black Humvees of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) mounted with machine guns, headed towards Bartella, which is a Christian village whose population fled after IS took over the region. The town is the main attack target on the eastern front. A CTS spokesman at a nearby location has reported that the militants are fighting back, using suicide car-bombs, roadside bombs and snipers in a bid to push the attack back, adding that they are pounding surrounding areas with mortar. Over the past year, the US-trained CTS has spearheaded most of the offensive against IS, including the capture of Ramadi and Falluja, west of the capital Baghdad. The force is deployed on a Kurdish frontline, marking the first joint military operation between the government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
On the northern front, Kurdish Peshmerga shot down with machine guns an unmanned drone aircraft that came from IS lines in the village of Nawaran, which is located a few kilometres away. It was not clear if the drone, which was 1 – 2 metres (3 – 6 feet) wide, was carrying explosives or just on reconnaissance. According to Halgurd Hasan, one of the Kurdish fighters deployed in a position overlooking the plain north of Mosul, “there have ben times when they dropped explosives.”
The Iraqi Prime Minister announced the start of the offensive to retake Mosul on 17 October, two years after th city fell to the militants, who declared from its Grand Mosque a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Mosul is the last big city stronghold held by IS in Iraq. Raqqa is the capital of the group in Syria. A US-led coalition, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Italy and other Western nations, is providing air and ground support to the forces who are closing in on the city. The battle for Mosul is expected to be the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein. Around 1.5 million people still live in Mosul and the battle is expected to last weeks, if not months.
The warring sides are not making public their casualty tolls or the number of casualties amongst civilians. Iraqi officials and residents of Mosul however have reported that IS is preventing people from leaving the city, in effect using them as shields to complicate air strikes and the ground progress of the attacking forces. The administration of Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province is now one of the main topics of discussion for world leaders. There are growing concerns that the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni group would cause new sectarian and ethnic violence, fuelled by a desire to avenge atrocities that were inflicted on minority groups.
On Monday 17 October, an Iraqi operation to recapture the city of Mosul, which is the last stronghold of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the country, began, with official reporting that pro-government forces have already made gains.
The start of the operation was announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a televised address in the early hours of Monday (local time). Shortly afterwards, artillery began firing on the city in what is a long-awaited assault from Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi government and allied forces. On the ground sources reported tanks moving towards the city, which has been held by IS since 2014, with one source disclosing that Kurdish tanks have closed the gap with IS position on about 300m. Kurdish forces have also disclosed that they have retaken a number of villages in their advance while pro-government forces are attacking an airbase in Qayyarah, located about 60 km (37 miles) to the south, which was recaptured in August. The US-led coalition that is fighting IS is backing the assault with air strikes. Analysts have warning that the operation is complex, adding that it could last for weeks, if not months.
Who is Fighting?
About 30,000 pro-government troops are involved in the operation, with the main assault being led by Iraqi army troops who are based south of Mosul. About 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga milita have begun clearing villages in the east. Sunni tribal fighters and Shia-led paramilitary forces are also due to take part, while planes from the US-led coalition against IS are providing air support. US Special Operations personnel are advising forces on the ground and elite Iraq counterterrorism forces are expected to join in th coming days. It is estimated that between 4,000 – 8000 IS fighters are defending the city.
Importance of Mosul
Mosul, which is the oil-rich capital of Nineveh province, was Iraq’s second-largest city before IS militants overran it in June 2014. Its capture became a symbol of the group’s rise as a major force and its ability to capture and hold territory. It was there that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. The city was one of the country’s most diverse, and comprised of ethnic Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens as well as a number of religious minorities. While members of those minorities largely fled the onslaught by IS, many local Sunni Arabs initially welcomed the militants as they were angered by the sectarian politics of the previous Shia Arab-led central government. However after two years of brutal IS rule, opposition has grown inside the city.
A United States military spokesman reported on 29 September that in the last thirty days, air strikes by the United States and it s allies have killed eighteen Islamic State (IS) “leaders,” adding that thirteen of them were killed in Mosul, the militant group’s de facto Iraqi capital.
Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq and Syria, told a Pentagon briefing that many of those targeted where military commanders, propagandists and those facilitating foreign recruits into territory controlled by Islamic state, which has sympathizers worldwide. Dorrian further disclosed that “by taking these individuals off the battlefield, it creates some really disruptive effects to enemy command and control. He added that there are now between 3,000 and 4,500 IS fighters left in Mosul, noting that while new fighters are not able to enter the city in large convoys, they continue to move in small formations.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the US would deploy around 600 new troops to Iraq in order to assist Iraqi forces in the battle to retake Mosul from IS militants, who control parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. The US currently has 4,565 troops in Iraq as part of a US-led coalition that is providing extensive air support, training and advise to the Iraqi military, which collapsed in 2014 in the face of Islamic State’s territorial gains and lightning advance towards the capital, Baghdad.
According to a defense consultancy, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has lost 12% of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria in the first half of this year.
IHS has found that the “caliphate,” which was proclaimed by IS two years ago, has shrunk to 68,300 sq km (26,370 sq miles). According to IHS, in January 2015, just six months after IS declared the creation of a caliphate, the terror group controlled some 90,800 sq km of Iraq and Syria, adding that by December, that had shrunk by 12,800 sq km to 78,000 sq km, a net loss of 14%. According to IHS, since then IS has lost a further 9,700 sq km and now controls 68,300 sq km, which is roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland or the US state of West Virginia.
In Syria, IS has come under pressure from Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia and Iran, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters who are supported by a US-led multinational collation. In February, the SDF captured the eastern town of Shaddadi, which was a major hub for IS, while in March, the ancient town of Palmyra was retaken by government forces. In neighbouring Iraq, troops and allied militiamen are preparing a long-awaited offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul, which is IS’s last remaining urban stronghold there.
IHS has reported that the losses of land in Iraq and Syria had led IS to set up its attacks on civilian targets elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe, noting that such attacks are likely to intensify. Last week, almost 300 people died in an IS suicide bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. The attck came just days after the Iraqi government declared that it had retaken full control of the city of Fallujah, which is located just west to the capital.
A UK-based activist group, which is monitoring the conflict in Syria and recent territorial gains by Islamic State (IS), reported Friday that Iraqi pilots who have joined IS are now training IS members in Syria to fly three captured fighter jets.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), witnesses have reported seeing planes being flown around the Al-Jarrah military airport, which is located east of the contested city of Aleppo. Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the SOHR, disclosed Friday that IS militants were using Iraqi officers, who were pilots under ex-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to train fighters in Syria. He added, “people saw the flights, they went up many times from the airport and they are flying in the skies outside the airport and coming back.”
While it remains unknown just how many Iraqi pilots have defected and what the trainees’ previous level of familiarity with flight is, it is known that IS has three planes in its possession, which they captured earlier on the ground in Aleppo and Raqqa.
If IS is indeed using Iraqi pilots to train its fighters, such a move could have a major impact on global security, and could see the militant group attempt to hijack planes in Europe and the United States. With officials in Europe already warning that a number of EU nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside IS militants, the jihadist group could be training militants with EU passports on how to hijack planes and carryout terrorist attacks similar to 9/11.
Meanwhile Iraqi forces have launched an attack on IS militants stationed near Tikrit. The Iraqi government reported Friday that its troops have gained ground to the northern and western regions of Tikrit, effectively cutting an important IS supply route. The city is amongst those areas that were seized by IS in Syria and Iraq earlier this year.
Kurdish forces, backed by US-led air strikes, are continuing to fight the militants in the northern Syrian town of Kobane. On Friday, US-led warplanes targeted jihadists attacking Kobane as Pentagon officials disclosed that despite a recent wave of deadly bombings in Baghdad, there was no imminent threat to the capital city.
Pentagon officials announced Friday that despite recent advances made by the militant group to the west of Baghdad, IS was not poised for an assault on the capital city. The battle for the town of Kobane has been seen as a major test for the US-led coalition’s air campaign and whether it will be able to successfully push back the militant group.