Iraqi army launches op to retake Mosul
REUTERS photoThe Iraqi army said March 24 that its troops and allied militia had launched what is expected to be a long and difficult offensive to retake the second city of Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) main hub in Iraq.
The army and the Popular Mobilization paramilitary force “have begun the first phase of conquest operations” in the northern Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, Iraq’s joint operations command said in a statement.
It said four villages had been taken between the town of Qayyarah, which is still held by ISIL, and Makhmour, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have been massing in recent weeks.
The army did not say how long this phase of the operation was expected to take, as Iraqi forces still look far from being in a position to take the city itself.
The joint operations command is coordinating the battle by Iraqi security forces to retake the large parts of the country seized by ISIL during a lightning offensive in 2014.
It includes representatives from the U.S.-led coalition that has provided air support, training and military advisers for the Iraqi army in its fightback.
Iraqi forces have scored important recent gains against ISIL, including retaking the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi.
The latest announcement comes as pro-government forces in Syria closed in on ISIL in the ancient city of Palmyra, which the jihadists seized around the same time as Ramadi last year.
But Mosul – which along with Raqqa in Syria is one of the jihadists’ two main hubs – would be a major prize.
Experts have warned that any battle to retake the city will be difficult, given the significant number of jihadists and civilians in the city and the time ISIL has had to prepare defenses.
Lt.-Gen. Sean MacFarland, the commander of the U.S.-led operation against ISIL, has said Iraqi generals do not think they will be able to recapture Mosul until the end of 2016 or early 2017 at the earliest.
As they have done in battles to retake cities like Ramadi and Tikrit, Iraqi forces are expected to work slowly and deliberately to cut off supply lines to Mosul before launching an assault on the city.
Thousands of troops were deployed in February to a base in Makhmour, some 70 kilometers southeast of Mosul, in preparation for the offensive.
The U.S.-led coalition said it carried out three strikes in the Qayyarah area on March 23.
“Near Qayyarah, three strikes struck an ISIL communication facility and destroyed an ISIL-used bridge section and denied ISIL access to terrain,” it said in a statement.