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Iraqi forces launch offensive against Mosul stronghold


10-18-2016 05:37 BJT

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BAGHDAD, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- Iraqi forces are fighting all out to retake control of the city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) militants after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday announced the start of long-awaited offensive.

"Today I declare the launch of the operation of liberating Nineveh province. The time of victory has come, and the moment of the great victory is approaching," Abadi said in his brief address aired by the state-run al-Iraqiya channel.

Abadi pledged to rebuild Mosul and other towns and villages in Nineveh province after they were destroyed by the extremist IS militants, and vowed to bring stability to Mosul.

"Very soon, we will be with you to raise the flag of Iraq in the middle of Mosul, and in towns and villages as well," Abadi said, calling on the people of Mosul to cooperate with security forces to defeat the IS group.

Like the previous battles that freed the cities of Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and others from IS militants, the troops are moving to gradually encircle the city of Mosul, some 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, after clearing IS militants from towns and villages around it, before entering the city districts.

On Monday morning, the Iraqi forces reportedly managed to free nine villages from IS militants who fled the scene, as they continued their advance to free many areas around Mosul, including the towns of Bashiqa and Himdaniyah in northeast of the city.

In Mosul, reports said that some 1.3 million civilians are still living in Mosul's neighborhood and surrounding villages of Nineveh plain, while more than 5,000 IS militants holed up in the city with significant preparations to defend the city.

"More than 65,000 Iraq security personnel are expected to participate in the battle of Mosul, their positions located between 15 to 50 km away from the edges of the city's neighborhoods," Major Abdullah al-Jubouri, an Iraqi army officer, told Xinhua.

Army brigades backed by elite anti-terrorism forces with an armored brigade, including Abrams tanks, are advancing from the southern axis on the eastern side of the Tigris River. Other army brigades and anti-terrorism forces are also advancing from southeastern axis on the west side of the river, Jubouri pointed out.

There are also some 10,000 fighters of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who are advancing from the east and northern axis. The Kurdish forces are backed by some 24,000 of police of Nineveh province and paramilitary Sunni tribal units, Jubouri said.

The Iraqi forces in Mosul battle are also supported by the Iraqi and international aircraft as well as different kinds of Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition artillery units, Jubouri added.

Observers believe that the battles in Mosul could be long, bloody, costly and protracted, let alone the suffering of civilians, but that will mainly depends on whether the IS militants would be ready to show stiff resistance or not.

However, the tough part of the struggle is only in the post-IS stage, as many possible conflicts could erupt in Nineveh province among the Iraqi factions in northern Iraq and with regional countries as well.

The tacit alliance -- of Iraqi government forces alongside the paramilitary Shiite Hashd Shaabi units, paramilitary Sunni tribal fighters, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and hundreds of U.S. troops -- highlights the significance of the battle of Iraq's last IS stronghold of Mosul.

Recapturing Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, would break the back of the terrorist group, demolishing its self-declared state of Islamic "caliphate" in Iraq.

"Mosul was chosen by the IS top leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to make his first public appearance after declaring the caliphate after the IS group blitzkrieg large territories in northern and western Iraq in June 2014, and that was dramatically symbolic," Jubouri said.

"If Mosul is recaptured by the Iraqi forces, it would be a complete reversal of the IS' sweep, pushing the extremist militants to regroup in a few and isolated pockets of territories in Iraq," Jubouri said.

The only option left for the IS group is to respond to their battlefield losses by returning to guerrilla-style tactics, or retreat to neighboring Syria, where the group also sustains increasing defeats, Jubouri concluded.

Hassan al-Dulaimi, a military expert, told Xinhua that if the IS group is defeated in Mosul, a question will rise; who will govern the areas vacated by IS extremist group and how?

The U.S. strategy to defeat IS from Iraq's northern province of Nineveh and its capital Mosul depends on a variety of allied local armed groups who are often bitterly at odds. All of them consider the IS group as an enemy, but also most of them consider one another as enemies.

"The disputed armed groups will stake out claims to capture lands in ways that risking bringing them into conflict with others who also seize territories," Dulaimi said.

The situation in post-IS Mosul will be so complicated. According to Dulaimi, one of the anticipated conflicts will be between the Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, as the Iraqi Kurds moved into areas called disputed areas outside the regional boundaries before 2003, that once under control of the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi government wants the Kurds to leave these areas after driving out IS militants and that the fate of those disputed areas must be decided after referendum according to article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

However, the Kurds said they won't let go of any territory Kurds have shed blood to free it from IS and that the referendum must be conducted in these areas under their rule to the disputed areas.

Another conflict possibly to take place between Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran, as the Shiite militias have teamed up with the security forces pushing north from Baghdad and cleared many towns and villages on their route to Mosul, Dulaimi said.

The reason behind the possible conflict between the Kurds and Shiite militias is also attributed to the disputed areas outside the Kurdistan region. Such conflict has already started in at least one location, the town of Tuz Khurmato in Salahudin province, as clashes have repeatedly taken place late last year and again in April.

Tuz Khurmato, some 90 km east of Salahudin's provincial capital of Tikrit, made up mostly of Turkman Shiite and sizable Kurdish and Sunni Arab population.

A conflict of Sunni Arabs against Shiite Hashd Shaabi units, or against Peshmerga, as both Shiites and Kurds have fought the IS group which captured the Sunni areas. Many Sunnis are taking part with the Kurds and Shiites in defeating IS militants from the Sunni towns and villages, Dulaimi said.

However, there are reports of abuses by Shiites and Kurds against the Sunni communities they liberated from IS. Such abuses included forced displacement of Sunnis from their homes and mass detentions of Sunni men and sometimes killing over sectarian motives.

"With the absence of real reconciliation efforts by the Iraqi government, such abuses could ignite Sunni insurgency," Dulaimi concluded.

Another complicated conflict could erupt with the presence of the Turkish forces in Baqshiqa military camp, some 30 km north of Mosul, training Sunni fighters and Kurdish Peshmerga, preparing them for the main battle to free Mosul, Dulaimi said.

The presence of Turkish troops sparked a political row as Baghdad government has called them "occupying forces" that could trigger a "regional war." Both Baghdad and Ankara have summoned the ambassadors of each other to express condemnation of other side.

Ankara overtly rejects the participation of Shiite Hashd Shaabi units, fearing of possible "forceful change in the demographic composition of the region, according to Dulaimi.

"Driving IS out of Mosul and other areas in northern Iraq with the persistence of tension between Arabs and Kurds around a liberated Mosul will create ethnic problems that may be as serious as the sectarian ones between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as spill over into Kurdish areas in Turkey and Syria," Dulaimi added.

Eventually, bringing back peace to Mosul needs hard work, it is even more important than the necessary military action. The city once was home to a complex mosaic of tribes and ethnic groups, but since IS took over the city; the group planted the seeds of hatred and division.

"IS militants have created profound wounds across the society and within families. The situation in post-IS Mosul won't be rosy as people in the liberated city will quickly go into recrimination, revenge and sectarian strife," Dulaimi warned.

The Iraqi government, the international coalition and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) will have the duty to pursue long-term engagement strategy with a greater focus on national reconciliation could consolidate the peace and co-existence among Iraqi factions and Mosul and other parts of Iraq, according to Dulaimi.

"This is not an imagination or wishes, because the Iraqi factions, regional countries and the international community have the interest to bring peace and dry up the resources of terrorism," Dulaimi concluded.

On the other hand, the United Nations and aid agencies expected a human catastrophe with up to 1.5 million people could be displaced or in need for aid in Nineveh province when an offensive is launched to retake Mosul from IS militants.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said in recent report that it is expecting 200,000 people to flee in the first few days of an attack to retake the city, but says the worst case scenario could be up to 700,000 people. Up to 1.5 million people in the city could be in need of aid.

Currently, agencies on the ground have supplies for about 100,000 of the estimated 200,000 people who will initially need help. "It's a race against the clock now," said Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.

Mosul, some 400 km north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, has been under IS control since June 2014, when Iraqi government forces abandoned their weapons and fled, enabling IS militants to take control of parts of Iraq's northern and western regions.

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