Iraqi government and Kurdish forces launched an offensive Monday to retake Mosul and deal a death blow to ISIS’ so-called caliphate in the northern city where it was declared more than two years ago.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the assault in a televised address in the early hours of Monday.
“Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh (ISIS),” Abadi said.
Some 30,000 federal forces are leading the offensive, backed by a 60-nation U.S.-led coalition air and ground assault.
Iraqi forces could be seen readying weapons and ammunitions as columns of armored vehicles headed towards Mosul from the town of Al-Shura, some 45 kilometers south of the city.
The Pentagon described the long-awaited operation as a “decisive moment” in the fight against ISIS but the U.S.-led coalition’s top commander warned it could last weeks or more.
“This is a decisive moment in the campaign to deliver ISIS a lasting defeat,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said.
“This operation to regain control of Iraq’s second-largest city will likely continue for weeks, possibly longer,” warned Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition.
The beginning of the assault also saw the U.N. and aid groups voice fears for the hundreds of thousands of civilians remaining in the city – ISIS’ last major Iraqi stronghold – with ISIS expected to use them as human shields.
“I am extremely concerned for the safety of up to 1.5 million people,” U.N. deputy Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Stephen O’Brien said.
“Depending on the intensity and scope of the fighting, as many as one million people may be forced to flee their homes in a worst-case scenario,” O’Brien said in a statement.
Save The Children said “the lives of more than half a million children now hang in the balance.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council said safe exits from Mosul must be provided or civilians “will be faced with the bleakest of choices: stay behind and risk their lives under attack, or risk their lives trying to flee.”
ISIS suffered a string of territorial defeats this year in both Iraq and Syria, and the retaking of Mosul would all but end the group’s presence in Iraq as a land-holding force.
Iraqi forces have been closing in on Mosul in recent weeks but the battle launched on Monday could be the toughest yet in the fight against ISIS.
The jihadists are vastly outnumbered, with an estimated 3,000 to 4,500 thought to be in the city and surrounding area.
But they have had months to prepare and will seek to use hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, snipers, bombs, berms and trenches to slow down and bleed Iraqi forces.
As the assault began, federal forces moved from their main staging base of Qayyarah, south of Mosul, while peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region simultaneously advanced from the east.
Around 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga took part in a push to reclaim villages once inhabited by members of the Christian and Kakai minorities, a statement said.
Abadi stressed that only Iraqi police and army would enter the city proper.
“The force leading liberation operations is the brave Iraqi army with the national police and they are the ones that will enter Mosul, not others,” he said.