Iraqi forces resume offensive to capture western Mosul
London - Iraqi forces launched an operation to retake the portions of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris River, four months into a broad offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the northern Iraqi city.
The battle for Mosul, backed by the US-led coalition, has driven ISIS militants from the eastern half of the city.
The spokesman of the Joint Military Operation Command, Iraqi Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, told the Associated Press that nearly 123 sq.km have been taken south of Mosul since the push started on February 19th.
Iraqi troops fully control the strategical hill of Abu Saif overlooking the Mosul airport as well as the Hamam al-Alil intersection on the main highway into the city, Rasool said.
Elite Iraqi forces have joined the regular army and the security forces on the ground, he added.
Iraqi federal police later pushed their way into the perimeter of Mosul International Airport, taking control of the runway, police officials said.
Iraqi state TV broadcast footage showing Iraqi jets pounding ISIS positions, vehicles and personnel in Mosul’s western half. The report did not say when the air strikes took place.
Iraqi forces in Abu Saif said they were targeted with at least four large car bombs and as many as five other car bombs were destroyed in air strikes.
Iraqi forces also said Abu Saif was almost empty when they retook it. As they pushed towards western Mosul they said they expected to encounter more civilians, which will make it more difficult to use artillery and air strikes to clear territory.
Consolidating the gains lays the groundwork for the operation’s next stage: Entering Mosul’s more urban neighbourhoods, which have old and narrow streets likely to hide booby traps and roadside bombs.
“I don’t think the western side will take us a lot of time,” Brigadier-General Abbas al-Juburi of the Rapid Response force told Agence France-Presse.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who recently visited Baghdad, also said he was confident Iraqi security forces would have the upper hand, despite warnings by commanders and experts that taking Mosul’s west bank could result in some of the bloodiest battles yet against ISIS.
During a news conference after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraqi defence officials, Mattis said ISIS militants were “going to be shown exactly what they are, which is a bunch of murderous relics”.
US Air Force Brigadier-General Chuck Corcoran said as many as 50 aircraft were over the city at any one time, so many that it was like “layers on a wedding cake”. He said drones circled lower, fighter jets were in the middle and spy planes and other surveillance craft were at the highest altitudes.
Approximately 2,000 ISIS fighters were left in west Mosul to defend against the offensive by the Iraqi security forces, a senior US intelligence official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
US-led coalition supporting Iraqi forces had estimated before the October 17th beginning of the operation in Mosul that the city was defended by 5,000-7,000 militants.
An estimated 750,000 civilians, almost half of them children, were trapped in west Mosul with dwindling food and medical supplies, aid organisations said. UN officials said they feared at least 250,000 civilians could flee the fighting in the coming days, adding to the 160,000 displaced during the first four months of the offensive.
A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) said ISIS fighters have been raping and torturing Sunni Arab women. The report documented cases of arbitrary detentions, beatings, forced marriages and rape by the militants on women who have fled the town of Hawijah, which is still under ISIS control. In an earlier report, HRW accused Iranian-trained Iraqi paramilitary units of demolishing hundreds of Sunni Arab houses near Mosul.
The commander of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS said he expected its forces would be allowed to stay in Iraq after Mosul is recaptured.
“I don’t anticipate that we will be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul,” US Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend said in Baghdad.
The coalition has more than 9,000 personnel in Iraq, more than half of them Americans. They are deployed in an advisory capacity but have sometimes been drawn into combat.
Abadi insisted Iraqi forces were “the only ones fighting” but said outside help was crucial. “Continued support for Iraq is very necessary,” he said in a statement.
Mattis said the United States was not about to plunder Iraq’s petroleum reserves, as he sought to soothe Iraqi partners rattled by the statements of US President Donald Trump.
Trump has repeatedly said the United States, whose troops occupied Iraq for eight years, should have confiscated Iraqi oil to help fund the US war effort and to deprive ISIS of a vital revenue source.
Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, appeared to nix the idea.
“All of us in America have generally paid for gas and oil all along and I am sure that we will continue to do so in the future,” Mattis said during a visit to Iraq.
“We are not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.”