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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Retaking Mosul: Iraq, Kurdish fighters report early success

Iraqi and Kurdish forces say they have retaken a number of villages outside the northern city of Mosul, as they press an offensive to reclaim control of the area from Islamic State militants.

The operation, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition and involving Sunni tribal forces and Shi'ite militias, went on for its second day Tuesday with the fighting still located outside of Mosul itself.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said the first day of fighting freed 200 square kilometers. He declared "Mosul will be liberated," and added that his fighters are doing their best to keep the city from becoming like war-battered Aleppo, Syria.

The operation is the largest military operation in Iraq since U.S. combat forces left five years ago, and is raising concerns about the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area.

It involves Kurdish fighters, federal police, Sunni tribal fighters and Shi'ite militia forces, as well as airstrikes and other support from a U.S.-led coalition that has been targeting Islamic State for the past two years in Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces are “ahead of schedule so far,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday at a briefing. He said U.S. troops are on the outskirts of Mosul in a support and advisory role, behind forward lines. “Iraqis are in the lead,” he said.

“Americans are in harm’s way as part of this fight,” he said, but most are far away from the front lines.

U.S. officials have described the mission as a "decisive moment" in the campaign against Islamic State, which has suffered a series of defeats and is largely confined to the Mosul area in Iraq. But they stress that the operation could last weeks or even longer.

"Mosul will be a hard fight, but the Iraqi security forces are ready," said U.S. Army Maj. General Gary J. Volesky, the top coalition general in Iraq. "The coalition is proud to support the Iraqis in the liberation of Mosul."

Iraq plans celebration

In a televised address, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Monday his nation will "celebrate victory as one."

"Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh," he said, using an alternative name for Islamic State.

In Istanbul, an opposition member of the Turkish parliament, Ozturk Yilmaz, the former Turkish consul general in Mosul, told VOA (Turkish reporter Tan Cetin) that Turkey also would like to play a role on the aftermath in Mosul, not only because of historical and cultural bonds to the region but to prevent another possible crisis.

“Iraq is our neighbor. In case of instability, we do not want to face a flow of refugees on our borders as was the case in relation to Syria,” he said.

Iraqi forces have for weeks been converging on Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and greatly outnumber Islamic State fighters there. But suicide bombings, sniper attacks, and other guerrilla tactics used by IS may complicate the offensive.

IS suicide operations

On Monday, Islamic State claimed multiple suicide operations through its 'Amaq news agency, targeting Iraqi troops and Peshmerga fighters, according to the SITE Intel Group. The number of fatalities, if any, is unclear.

Kurdish military officials said they are combing outskirts of Mosul before allowing Iraqi military units to move into the city from the eastern side.

“We will continue moving forward until we reach a point where the Iraqi military can take it from there,” said Peshmerga commander Omar Rahim told VOA.

In the hours before the announced start of the offensive, the Iraqi air force dropped thousands of leaflets on Mosul to warn residents.

Humanitarian workers, though, say it is unclear what Mosul civilians are meant to do. They have criticized war planners for failing to mark out clear escape routes for civilians.

U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said there is space for 60,000 people at camps for those displaced by the fighting, and soon those facilities will be able to accommodate 250,000 people. But he said in the worst case scenario as many as 1 million people may flee their homes.

"I renew my call on all parties to the conflict to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they are entitled to and deserve. Nothing is more important," he said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council highlighted similar concerns, saying it feared the humanitarian consequences of the fight for Mosul "will be massive." The group said the most important priority is making sure civilians have access to safe routes out of the city.

Roads, bridges blocked

Mosul residents contacted by phone and Skype say IS fighters - many veterans from battles in neighboring Anbar province - have blocked major roads and bridges in and out of Mosul.

The jihadists have fanned out throughout the city and planted mines and explosives and warned civilians not to attempt to leave.

Weeks of planning

For weeks, the assault on Mosul has been expected, but disagreements have flared between coalition allies over how Mosul, and the Nineveh region in which it lies, will be governed after IS is expelled and who should be involved in the fight.

Kurdish claims earlier this month that any territory the Kurdish Peshmerga captures will be part of Kurdistan have infuriated the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad.

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