U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces launched on Sunday a large-scale ground offensive to capture the western part of the city of Mosul from ISIS and put an end to their ambitions for territorial rule in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the offensive on state TV, calling on Iraqi forces to “respect human rights” during the battle and to watch out for those displaced by the fighting.
Abadi said government forces were moving to “liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression and terrorism forever,” using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Plumes of smoke were seen spiraling into the sky early Sunday morning as U.S.-led coalition jets struck militant positions southwest of Mosul and militarized Iraqi police fired artillery toward the city. Hundreds of military vehicles were filmed travelling across the desert towards the jihadists’ positions in the city early on Sunday.
“This is zero hour and we are going to end this war, God willing,” said Mahmoud Mansour, a police officer, as he prepared to move out.
Iraqi planes dropped millions of leaflets on western Mosul warning residents that the battle to dislodge ISIS was imminent, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said on Saturday. The leaflets told the jihadists to surrender “or face a fatal end”.
The Commander of the U.S./-led coalition forces, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, hailed the Iraqi forces in a statement as an “increasingly capable, formidable, and professional force”.
“Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world, and the Iraqi forces have risen to the challenge,” Lieutenant General Townsend said.
ISIS militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month, after three months of fighting.
Humanitarian agencies were gearing up to aid 250,000 to 400,000 civilians who may flee due to fighting, and suffer food and fuel shortages, the statement said. The U.N. estimates that about 750,000 civilians may be left in western Mosul.
Iraqi federal police units are leading a northward charge on the Mosul districts that lie west of the Tigris river, aiming to capture Mosul airport, just south of the city, according to statements from the armed forces joint command.
They captured several villages and a local power distribution station in the first hours and killed several militants including snipers, the statements said.
The police are advancing up the Tigris river valley toward the airport, whilst the Rapid Response, an elite Interior Ministry unit, cut across more open terrain to the southwest.
“Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world,” the commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said in a statement.
ISIS has escalated its insurgency in retaliation for the military setbacks that have, over the past year, forced it out of most Iraqi cities it had captured in 2014 and 2015.
Two militants blew themselves up in eastern Mosul on Sunday, killing three soldiers and two civilians, and wounding a dozen people, security sources said.