U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched an offensive Sunday to drive the Islamic State from its last stronghold in the country, an operation that also risks triggering a massive humanitarian crisis.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the move to retake control of western part of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, saying in a televised statement, “Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror” of the Islamic State.
An estimated 750,000 civilians, half of them children, are still trapped in western Mosul by several thousand Islamic State fighters. The United Nations estimated 250,000 to 400,000 civilians may flee, needing emergency refugee camps that are currently under construction.
“Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world, and the Iraqi forces have risen to the challenge,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said Sunday in a statement.
“The battle for the complete liberation of Mosul cannot come soon enough,” the statement said. The Islamic State for the past two years “committed horrible atrocities and terrorized the people of Mosul.”
Iraq last month declared that it had “liberated” eastern Mosul from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the fight for the western part of the city will be far tougher because of its narrow streets and dense civilian population, which will limit the use of airstrikes and armor.
“The right side is smaller. It’s the old city, so there are small houses and narrow streets and we cannot move as freely,” Lt. Gen. Sami al Arridy of the Iraqi Special Operation Forces said in a Friday interview. “There are many more hills and bridges, and we will have problem with space.”
He said car bombs and the use of human shields could slow down the offensive, as happened when fighting the Islamic State in eastern Mosul and other Iraqi cities.
The elite Rapid Response divisions of the Iraqi forces are leading the western Mosul offensive, which is largely pushing up from the south, west of the Tigris River that runs through the heart of the city, the Iraqi army said. Iraqi troops and police are looking to retake Mosul airport.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Igor Kossov