Iraq’s military says it has inflicted “heavy losses of life and equipment” on ISIS in a district southeast of Mosul, as Iraqi-led forces close in on the city in the long-awaited battle to recapture it from the terror group.
Hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of the offensive, Iraq’s military said it had inflicted losses and made advances in the Hamdaniya district.
“The victory bell has rung” in the mission to retake the key city, Iraq’s second largest, and free more than 1 million residents from the “brutality and terrorism of ISIS,” al-Abadi said in a televised statement early Monday morning.
The battle for Mosul — the largest city under ISIS control and the terror group’s last remaining stronghold in Iraq — represents “a decisive moment in the campaign” to defeat ISIS, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.
There have been around two or three explosions each hour of the assault, with heavy bombardment from the air in the first hours.
Two attempts at suicide car bomb attacks have also taken place along the road into Mosul.
CNN’s Nick Paton-Walsh, who is embedded with a Peshmerga convoy near Mosul, said he was witness to “staggering scenes” as forces pushed towards Mosul, with sporadic fighting erupting as they encountered pockets of ISIS fighters.
The anti-ISIS coalition greatly outnumbered their opponents, and had the benefit of calling in air support from the nearly 90 coalition and Iraqi planes involved in the operation whenever they met resistance, he said.
“They obviously have overwhelming numbers here and are moving very quickly against ISIS. But ISIS is showing that its very willing to put up a fight,” he said.
Paton Walsh was caught in an exchange of gunfire as he was filing a dispatch.
“We were doing a live shot on the main road, and ISIS still has fighters in that town hiding out, and they pop up occasionally and take potshots,” he said.
Paton-Walsh and his team — the first western media outlet to have traveled along the road into Mosul during the offensive — were unharmed in the exchange.
CNN journalist Hamdi Alkhshali, who is also southeast of Mosul, said the area is made up of around 50 small villages. He believes most residents here, who are predominantly Christians, fled ahead of the offensive.
Alkhshali saw a heavy exchange of gunfire from one of the villages, believed to be occupied by ISIS fighters, and Peshmerga forces.
Before Mosul was seized by ISIS in 2014, forming part of its self-declared caliphate across stretches of Iraq and Syria, the city was inhabited by more than 2 million people. Only about 1 million residents remain today.
Throughout the past year, Iraq’s government and its allies have prepared for the major offensive to drive ISIS from the northern city, after the humiliating capitulation that resulted in its loss in 2014.
The battle for Mosul may last weeks or even months, if the operation to retake Ramadi is any indicator.
A diverse coalition of as many as 100,000 troops will be involved in the offensive, mostly made up of Iraqi government troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters — although not all will be involved in the assault on the city, securing positions behind the frontlines instead.
Only Iraqi army troops and members of the national police force will enter the city of Mosul, according to Abadi.
The Iraqi-led forces include the Popular Mobilization Units, which plan to target ISIS tunnels and trenches south of Mosul with thermobaric missiles.
In addition, thousands of Kurdish forces have dug in from other directions in the desert surrounding Mosul.
The Pentagon, which has lent advisers and air support, recently announced the deployment of 600 additional American troops to aid in Mosul’s capture, bringing the number of US personnel to 4,847.
About 3,600 coalition forces from other nations will also be deployed in support of the operation.
US military officials estimate there are up to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul. ISIS supporters put the number at 7,000.
ISIS militants have taken measures to combat the effectiveness of airstrikes. Plumes of black smoke rose from oil-filled trenches on fire outside northeastern Mosul, an attempt by ISIS to obscure its fighters’ positions during airstrikes, military sources said. Even still, one airstrike hit one of Mosul’s main bridges.
Meanwhile, the terror group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a military checkpoint in southern Baghdad’s al-Yousufiya neighborhood that killed 10 people and wounded 17 Monday, according to a security source.
The victims included civilians, soldiers and police.
Humanitarian crisis looms
As Iraqi-led forces approach the city, Mosul’s residents still remain in the clutches of an organization known for exploiting civilians as human shields. Airdropped leaflets told residents to tape up their windows, disconnect gas cylinders, and stay indoors.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that up to 1.5 million people could be affected by the battle for the city, with civilians in Mosul facing potential threats from sniper attacks, booby traps, cross fire and explosives.
Afzal Ashraf, a visiting fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Center for Conflict, Security and Terrorism, said liberating Mosul would put a “very major dent” in ISIS’ claim to have established an Islamic caliphate, a core tenet of its ideology.
He said the major challenge would be to strike a balance between using enough force to overcome the extensive preparations ISIS would have made for the offensive, and avoiding unnecessary damage to the civilian population.