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.
According to a military statement in Baghdad, before dawn on Sunday 16 October the Iraqi army dropped thousands of leaflets over Mosul, warning residents that an offensive to recapture the city from the so-called Islamic State (IS) was in its final stages of preparation.
The leaflets carried several messages, in which one of them assured the population that advancing army units and air strikes “will not target civilians.” Another told civilians to avoid known locations of IS militants.
According to Iraqi government and military officials, the assault on Mosul, which is the last city that remains under the control of IS in Iraq, could begin this month with the support of a US-led coalition. IS fighters are dug in it is expected that they will fight hard for control of the city. Furthermore, in previous battles to defend territory, IS fighters have forced civilians to remain in harms’ way, often preventing them from escaping.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he hoped that the United States and its allies would do their best in order to avoid civilian causalities in an attack on Mosul. Reflecting the growing concerns of authorities over a mass exodus that would complicate the offensive, the leaflets told residents “to stay at home and not to believe rumours spread by Daesh (IS)” to cause panic. Earlier this month, Iraqi officials launched a radio station in order to help Mosul residents stay safe during the offensive. The radio is broadcasting from Qayyara, a town located 60 km (about 40 miles) south of Mosul, where the army is massing forces ahead of the offensive.
Mosul, which had a pre-war population of around 2 million, is around 4 – 5 times th size of any other city captured by the militants so far. Last week, the United Nations stated that it was bracing for the world’s biggest and most complex humanitarian effort in the battle for the city, which could make up to 1 million people homeless and see civilians used as human shields or even gassed.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the country’s military to go “full force” to wipe out the Islamic State (IS)-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
While President Duterte, who swept into office in May on a pledge to eliminate criminals, had initially called on the Abu Sayyaf Group to lay down their arms, he quickly adopted a tough stance when his overtures were rejected. Sources have reported that an additional 2500-strong force is being deployed to back up thousands of soldiers who are already stationed on the islands of Jolo and Sulu.
Abu Sayyaf was founded in the early 1990’s to fight for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, which is a Catholic-majority nation. For years, the militant group has eluded Philippines security forces, which had the support of US military logistics, as its militants carried out some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including a ferry bombing in 2014 that killed at least 100 people. The militants, who are believed to number around 500, have also kidnapped dozens of foreigners and Filipinos for ransom, in a business that has netted them millions of dollars, which they then use to carry out their operations. The militants are believed to be currently holding at least 23 hostages, including a Dutch birdwatcher who was kidnapped in 2012 and a Norwegian man who was abducted from a beach resort last year. Abu Sayyaf militants also beheaded two Canadian hostages this year who had been held for several months. Australian adventurer Warren Rodwell was held by the group for fifteen months after he was kidnapped from his home in a coastal town on 2011. A ransom of about US $100,000 was secured for his release.
While last year, Abu Sayyaf claimed allegiance to IS, analysts believe that the group has been mainly focused on kidnappings. Southeast Asian leaders however have expressed their concerns that regional militants, who have been fighting alongside IS fighters in Syria and Iraq, may return and seek sanctuary amongst Abu Sayyaf – further bolstering its strength with hardened fighters.
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.