US-backed Iraqi forces have launched a ground offensive to dislodge Islamic State militants from their remaining stronghold in Mosul, in the western part of the city.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday announced the start of the offensive in the northern Iraqi city, asking the armed forces to “respect human rights” during the battle and to take care of those displaced by the fighting.
Islamic State militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month, after 100 days of fighting.
Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets are closed, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters.
Iraqi federal police units are leading a northward charge on the Mosul districts that lie west of the Tigris river, aiming to capture Mosul airport, just south of the city, according to statements from the armed forces joint command.
They dashed through several villages, reaching Zakrutiya, a hamlet 5km south of the airport by the end of the day, the statements said, and captured a power distribution station along the way, killing several jihadists, including snipers.
The Rapid Response, an elite Interior Ministry Unit, is advancing alongside the federal police and captured several villages, according to an officer, who said they were largely abandoned.
“Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world,” the commander of the US-led coalition forces, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said in a statement.
Two militants blew themselves up in eastern Mosul on Sunday, killing three soldiers and two civilians, and wounding a dozen people, security sources said.
Iraqi planes dropped millions of leaflets on western Mosul warning residents that the battle to dislodge Islamic State was imminent, the Iraqi Defence Ministry said on Saturday. The leaflets told the jihadists to surrender “or face a fatal end”.
Commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.
The militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, disappear after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to residents.
Western Mosul contains the old city centre, with its ancient souks, Grand Mosque and most government administrative buildings.
It was from the pulpit of the Mosul Grand Mosque that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a self-styled “caliphate” over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Islamic State was thought to have up to 6000 fighters in Mosul when the government’s offensive started in mid-October. Of those, more than 1000 have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.
The remainder now face a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.