Iraq to begin battle to recapture Mosul
Demonstrators in Mosul chant pro-Isis slogans at a rally in 2014 just after the city was captured by the jihadi group © AP
Iraq announced the much-anticipated launch of its battle to recapture its second city, Mosul, from Isis, the biggest test yet in its two-year struggle against the jihadi force.
Haidar al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, announced the start of operations in a late-night television address on Sunday surrounded by military leaders.
“The hour of victory has come and the operations to liberate Mosul have come,” Mr Abadi said. “God willing, together we will celebrate your liberation and your deliverance.”
Hundreds of Isis militants over-ran Mosul in June 2014 as tens of thousands of Iraqi forces in the city fled, sparking the near-collapse of the army as soldiers melted away in the face of a blitz across northern Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
At its height, Isis controlled nearly a third of Iraq and half of Syria. After months of hard-won battles under the air cover of a US-led international air campaign, Iraqi forces have now squeezed the militants into a final 10 per cent of Iraqi territory.
Mosul, seen as one of the de facto capitals of the jihadis’ self-proclaimed caliphate, is their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
Western and Iraqi officials still do not know how Isis will respond to the attack, which Washington says will mobilise a 30,000-strong force of Iraqi soldiers, the Kurdish peshmerga and local militias.
Haidar al-Abadi, Iraqi prime minister © Reuters
The militants could make a last stand in the city or, facing an impeding encirclement, flee within weeks, as they did in the army’s July capture of Falluja. Air strikes have intensified against Isis positions in the city ahead of the attack.
Colonel John Dorrian, the coalition spokesman, said that more than 50 air strikes have been conducted in the past two weeks alone.
“We now have all the pieces in place to get Daesh out of Mosul,” said Brett McGurk, US special envoy to the anti-Isis coalition.
Many unknowns loom in the battle ahead. Iraqi security officials fear the jihadi force could unleash poison gas from suspected chemical weapons stockpiles in the city.
Humanitarians warn of a worst-case scenario that could see hundreds of thousands of people trying to flee the city. Privately, aid workers say they have only prepared for some 60,000 of the 200,000 who could flee in the first week alone.
There are also growing concerns that the fight could spark dangerous rivalries among the regional forces aligned against Isis.
This is the decisive battle against Isis. What happens here will decide our fate
A war of words erupted between Mr Abadi and Recep Tayep Erdogan, Turkey’s president, over Ankara’s insistence that it will play a role in Mosul, 70km from its southern border. Some 2,000-3,000 Turkish servicemen are currently based inside Iraq, over Baghdad’s objections.
Turkey and local Iraqi Sunni leaders have also warned against the entrance of Shia-dominated militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which have vowed to play a role.
They say that a PMF role could spark sectarian strife in the largely Sunni city of Mosul, where locals fear retribution by Shia forces that rights groups accuse of killing and detaining Sunnis in recaptured areas.
Washington played a critical role bringing together the factious allies in the final weeks ahead of the operation, said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who studies Isis.
He anticipated a fierce final stand for Isis, which activists in Mosul say has built underground tunnels in the city and dug trenches to fill with burning oil ahead of the campaign.
On Sunday, coalition planes dropped leaflets to residents warning them to stay indoors and asking them not to panic.
“This is the decisive battle against Isis,” Mr Hashimi said. “What happens here will decide our fate.”