According to new analysis, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group lost almost a quarter of its territory in 2016.
Security and defense analysts IHS Markit have reported that last year, the terrorist group gave up almost 18,000 sq km (6,900 sq miles), with its territory effectively reducing to some 60,400 sq km, just less than the size of the US state of Florida. According to IHS Markit, the 23% reduction in IS-held territory in 2016 followed on from a 14% loss in 2015.
IHS Market predicted the recapture of Mosul by Iraqi government forces by the middle of the year, nothing that the stronghold of Raqqa would be more difficult to recapture. What is also troubling is that IS retook the city of Palmyra in December 2016.
The report also highlighted what it said was a major theological dispute within IS, between those following mainstream doctrine and those taking a more radical interpretation, noting that this could raise the risk of defections or even cause an internal break-up.
Commissioner Warns that EU Should Prepare for Return of Jihadists as Iraq Launches Operation on MosulOctober 31, 2016 in Europe
The European Union’s (EU) commissioner has warned that the EU should be prepared for returning jihadists if the so-called Islamic State (IS) is driven out of its Iraqi stronghold, Mosul.
Julian King has told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper that even a small number of militants would pose “a serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for.” The comments come after Iraqi forces on 17 October launched what is expected to be a lengthy offensive on Mosul. Officials believe that as many as 5,000 IS fighters are believed to remain in the city.
King, a British diplomat who was recently made the EU’s security commissioner, told Die Wel that the threat of IS fighters returning to Europe after the fall of Mosul was “very serious.” He disclosed that there were currently about 2,500 fighters from EU countries in the combat zone, stressing however that it was “very unlikely that there would be a mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe.” He noted that similar cases in the past had shown that “only a few fighters come back.”
On day one of the offensive, a coalition of some 34,000 Iraq security personnel, Kurdish fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen, and Shia military forces, backed by the US and other nations, took control of a number of villages and districts located in the south and east of Mosul. On the ground sources have reported that the strategy is to encircle the city before moving in on the centre itself. Late on 17 October, US Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook disclosed that the campaign was “ahead of schedule,” warning however that it was early days and it was not yet known whetehr IS fighters would “stand and fight.” On 18 October, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “it could be a long battle” lasting several weeks, if not months.
In other reports, the Syrian army has accused the US-led coalition of planning to allow IS fighters in Mosul to flee into Syria. The army, which has no control over Syria’s border with Iraq, was quoted by Reuters news agency as stating that it would resist any attempt by fighters to cross. The commander of Iraq’s Counter-terrorism Service, Maj-Gen Fadhil Jalil al-Barwari, has been quoted by the New Arab website as saying that IS fighters are being offered two corridors “to go to Syria.”
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.