Iraqi army launches move to reclaim western Mosul
OREIJ, IraqIraqi forces launched an offensive Feb. 19 on jihadists defending Mosul’s west bank, in what could be the most brutal fighting yet in a four-month-old operation on the country’s second city.
The army swiftly retook at least five villages and set their sights on Mosul airport, which lies just south of the city, marking a new phase in Iraq’s largest military operation in years.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has put up stiff resistance to defend Mosul, the city where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed a “caliphate” in more than two-and-a-half years ago.
“Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a short televised speech, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL, Agence France-Presse reported.
“We announce the start of a new phase in the operation. We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul,” he said, referring to the province of which Mosul is the capital.
A top army commander then announced that forces led by federal police units retook villages south of Mosul, including Athbah, which leaves them within striking distance of the airport.
“We launched our operation at 7:00 am... We are heading toward the airport,” said Abbas al-Juburi of the Interior Ministry’s elite Rapid Response Force.
“We destroyed two car bombs and killed several Daesh members,” he told AFP near the front line.
Military vehicles blared patriotic songs as heavy bombardment and shooting could be heard in the distance.
The jihadists overran Mosul and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, sweeping aside security forces ill-prepared to face the assault.
The Iraqi government launched the offensive to reconquer Mosul on Oct. 17, 2016, throwing tens of thousands of forces into the long-awaited counter-attack with air and ground support from the U.S.-led coalition.
The Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against ISIL declared east Mosul “fully liberated” on Jan. 24.
But it took Iraq’s most seasoned forces – the elite Counter-Terrorism Service – more than two months to clear the eastern side of Mosul.
After a pause, federal forces now face what was always billed as the toughest nut to crack: Mosul’s west bank, home to the narrow streets of the Old City.
“West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale,” said Patrick Skinner, from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.
The streets around the historical center, which includes the mosque in which al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in June 2014, will be impassable for many military vehicles and force government fighters to take on ISIL in perilous dismounted warfare.