Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of military operations to liberate the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State militants early Monday, launching the country on its toughest battle since American troops left nearly five years ago.
State TV showed a brief written statement in the early hours Monday announcing the start of the widely anticipated military offensive to drive IS out of Iraq’s second largest city. Broadcasts showed the prime minister, dressed in a military uniform, speaking while flanked by senior officers. State TV broadcast patriotic music within minutes of the announcement.
The thuds of sporadic artillery shelling rumbled across the rolling Nineveh plains in the direction of Mosul, witnesses said. The push to retake Mosul will be the biggest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011 and, if successful, the strongest blow yet to the Islamic State.
Iraqi forces have been massing around the city in recent days. They include members of the elite special forces, who are expected to lead the charge into the city itself. Mosul is home to more than a million civilians. The city fell to IS fighters during a lightning charge in June 2014 that left nearly a third of Iraq in militants’ hands and plunged the country into its most severe crisis since the US-led invasion in 2003.
After seizing Mosul, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi visited the city to declare an Islamic caliphate that at one point covered nearly a third of Iraq and Syria.
But since late last year, the militants have suffered battlefields losses in Iraq and their power in Iraq has shrunk to Mosul, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, along with small towns in the country’s north and west. The operation to retake Mosul is expected to be the most complex yet for Iraq’s military, which has been rebuilding from its humiliating 2014 defeat.
Iraqi forces began moving into Nineveh province to surround Mosul in July, when ground troops led by the country’s elite special forces retook Qayara air base south of the city. Thousands of Iraqi troops were deployed there ahead of the planned operation. Iraqi troops were also positioned east of Mosul in the Khazer area, along with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and to the north of the city near the Mosul Dam and Bashiqa areas.
Before the prime minister’s announcement, Brig. Gen Haider Fadhil told The Associated Press in an interview that more than 25,000 troops, including paramilitary forces made up of Sunni tribal fighters and Shiite militias, will take part in the offensive that will be launched from five directions around the city. In addition to carrying out airstrikes, the US-led international coalition will also offer artillery fire, he added.
The role of the Shiite militias has been particularly sensitive, as Nineveh is a majority Sunni province and Shiite militia forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against civilians in other operations in majority Sunni parts of Iraq.
According to UN estimates, up to 1 million people could be displaced from Mosul during the operation, exacerbating the humanitarian situation in the country. The conflict in Iraq has forced 3.3 million people to flee their homes, with most of them living in camps or informal settlements.
Fadhil voiced concern about potential action from Turkish troops based in the region of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. Turkey sent troops to the area late last year to train anti-IS fighters there.
But Baghdad has seen the Turkish presence as a “blatant violation” of Iraqi sovereignty and has demanded the Turkish troops withdraw, a call Ankara has ignored.