ARBIL (IRAQ) (AFP) – Elite Iraqi forces were poised Tuesday for a first push into Mosul, after the prime minister warned jihadists who hold the city they have no choice but to surrender or die.
Forces from Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) were fighting IS in Gogjali, a village on the eastern edge of Mosul that they reached on Monday.
While CTS may soon enter Mosul, which IS overran two years ago, it will likely have to wait for other units to catch up before making a concerted push into the city.
“We are currently advancing in Gogjali,” Staff Lieutenant General Abdelwahab al-Saadi, a senior CTS officer, told AFP.
“The next will be towards Al-Zahra and Al-Karama on the eastern side of Mosul,” he said, without specifying when that step would take place.
For CTS’s “Mosul Regiment”, which has been fighting its way towards the city, retaking it is a matter of pride.
They were the last to retreat when IS seized the city on June 10, 2014 and they want to be the first back in.
The voice of Colonel Mustafa al-Obeidi came sputtering over the radio as his men advanced cautiously through Bazwaya, a village east of Gogjali, on Monday, sidling along walls and scanning the empty streets with their rifles raised.
“They’re fleeing, the jihadists are fleeing into Mosul,” Obeidi said.
Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters are converging on Mosul on different fronts, in the country’s biggest military operation in years.
– Surrender or die –
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared on state television on Monday wearing camouflage uniform.
“We will close in on (IS) from every place,” he said.
“They don’t have an exit, they don’t have an escape, they can only surrender — they can die or they can surrender.”
For the time being, the jihadists do have an escape route — to the west towards IS-controlled territory in neighbouring Syria.
Paramilitary forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, have been advancing north in a bid to cut it but they still have some way to go.
They are not directly headed for Mosul, instead setting their sights on the town of Tal Afar which commands the city’s western approaches.
The Hashed said on Monday that they had retaken a series of villages during their advance and surrounded others.
Their leadership says publicly that they do not intend to enter Mosul, which has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, but commanders on the ground say they want to fight inside the city.
On the northern and eastern sides of Mosul, peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region have taken a series of villages and towns and consolidated their positions.
To the south, federal forces, backed by coalition artillery units stationed in the main staging base of Qayyarah, have been pushing north.
They have the most ground to cover and are still some distance from the southern limits of Mosul.
The initial shaping phase of the operation, during which dozens of villages and several towns have already been retaken from IS, is still under way.
Once it is over, Iraqi forces are expected to besiege Mosul, try to open safe corridors for the million-plus civilians still believed to be inside, and then enter the city to take on die-hard jihadists in street battles.
Humanitarian organisations have been fighting against the clock to build up the capacity to handle an expected mass exodus from the city.
The United Nations says up to a million people could be displaced in the coming weeks.
More than 17,900 people have already fled their homes since the operation began, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
IS has been losing ground steadily in Iraq since 2015 and the outcome of the Mosul battle is in little doubt, but commanders have warned it could last months.