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Iraq launches offensive on Daesh near Syria border

Members of Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fire toward Daesh militant positions in west of Mosul, Iraq, in this Dec. 28, 2016 file photo. (Reuters)

BAGHDAD/ERBIL: Iraqi forces launched an offensive against the Daesh group near the Syrian border Thursday, piling further pressure on the militants’ crumbling “caliphate.”
A joint operations commander told Reuters that Iraqi forces have retaken around 70 percent of eastern Mosul from Daesh militants and expect to reach the river bisecting the city in the coming days.
Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, who is also head of the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) spearheading the campaign to retake the northern city, said the cooperation of residents was helping them advance against Daesh.
Baghdad and its allies also turned up the heat on Daesh in its last remaining Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, where the US-led coalition said it had doubled the number of its advisers.
“A military operation has begun in the western areas of Anbar (province) to liberate them from Daesh,” said Lt. Gen. Qassem Mohammedi, head of Jazeera Operations Command.
He said the operation was led by the army’s 7th division, police, and fighters from local tribes that have opposed the militants, with aerial backing from the coalition.
The main targets of the operation are Aanah, Rawa and Al-Qaim, the westernmost Iraqi towns along the Euphrates Valley.
The militant hub of Al-Qaim, which lies 330 km northwest of Baghdad, is still a long way down the road and the most immediate target is the town of Aanah.
“Our forces started advancing from Haditha toward Aanah from several directions,” Mohammedi told AFP.
Haditha was never seized by Daesh when the group swept across much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in 2014 and is home to a tribe that has led the fight against the militants in the area.
“Zero hour has come to liberate the western areas,” Nadhom Al-Jughaifi, a commander with the Haditha tribal fighters, said.
In 2016, Iraqi forces retook large parts of the vast province of Anbar, including its capital Ramadi and the city of Fallujah.
Anbar is a desert area traversed by the Euphrates that borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Security in reconquered areas remains precarious and militants continue to move across the province.
Daesh has lost more than half of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and the loss of Mosul would deal a major blow to the “caliphate” it proclaimed there in June 2014.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi forces are currently involved in an offensive to retake the main northern city, which is also Daesh’s last major stronghold in the country.
The operation launched on Oct. 17 is Iraq’s largest in years and while significant territory was reconquered around Mosul, the going has been tough inside the city itself.
After a lull in operations, Iraqi forces launched a fresh push last week and appear to have found new momentum.
“Iraqi security forces have made significant progress since initiating phase two of their operation to liberate Mosul,” Col. John Dorrian, the coalition’s spokesman, said on Wednesday.
He said that was partly owed to increased coalition involvement in the battle, with a doubling of the deployment of advisers there to about 450.
“We have increased the number of advise and assist forces that are there with the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) command elements to help advise them as they move forward and to synchronize operations,” he said.

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi promised that his forces would rid Iraq of Daesh by the end of 2016 but commanders have admitted they were surprised at how stiff militant resistance was in the city.
According to a top commander in the Counter-Terrorism Service that has spearheaded the battle in Mosul, Iraqi forces have now retaken about two thirds of the city’s eastern half.
Dorrian said the presence inside the city of hundreds of thousands of civilians had slowed progress.
“There are more than 200,000 buildings in Mosul. And really, in order to do this properly, given the way that the enemy has conducted themselves, you end up having to clear each one,” he told reporters.

Iraqi gains in east Mosul
In its 12th week, the offensive has gained momentum since Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition renewed their push for the city a week ago, clearing several more eastern districts despite fierce resistance.
“Roughly 65-70 percent of the eastern side has been liberated,” Shaghati said in an interview late on Wednesday in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. “I think in the coming few days we will see the full liberation of the eastern side.”
The western half of the city remains under the full control of Daesh, which is fighting to hold on to its largest urban stronghold with snipers and suicide car bombs numbering “in the hundreds” according to Shaghati.
The Mosul assault, involving a 100,000-strong ground force of Iraqi government troops, members of the autonomous Kurdish security forces and mainly Shiite militiamen, is the most complex battle in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.
The commander of a US-led coalition backing the Iraqi offensive told Reuters on Wednesday that increased momentum was due largely to better coordination among the army and security forces. He said the Iraqis had improved their ability to defend against Daesh car bombs.
Although vastly outnumbered, the militants have used the urban terrain to their advantage, concealing car bombs in narrow alleys, posting snipers on tall buildings with civilians on lower floors and making tunnels and surface-level passageways between buildings. They have also embedded themselves among the local population.

Human shields
The presence of large numbers of civilians on the battlefield has restricted Iraqi forces’ use of artillery but the cooperation of residents has also helped them target the militants.
“They give us information about the location of the terrorists, their movements and weapons that has helped us pursue them and arrest some and kill others,” Shaghati said.
In the run-up to the Mosul offensive, Iraqi officials expressed hope that residents would rise up against Daesh, accelerating the group’s demise in the city. But mass executions seem to have discouraged widespread resistance.
An Iraqi victory in Mosul would probably spell the end for Daesh’s self-styled caliphate, which leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared 2-1/2 years ago from Mosul’s main mosque after the militants overran the city.
But in recent days, the militants have displayed the tactics to which they are likely to resort if they lose the city, killing dozens with bombs in Baghdad and attacking security forces elsewhere.
An attack claimed by Daesh killed six people on Thursday on the capital’s eastern outskirts.
CTS pushed into Mosul from the east in late October and made swift advances but regular army troops tasked with advancing from the north and south made slower progress and the operation stalled for several weeks.
The roughly 10,000 members of CTS, established a decade ago with support from the US forces, are considered the best-trained and equipped fighters in Iraq.
Shaghati described the role of the international coalition, providing air support and advising Iraqi forces on the ground as “outstanding” and said Daesh was crumbling under pressure.
“Daesh devised many plans to obstruct and block us but they failed. We were able to surpass them and these areas were liberated with high speed,” Shaghati said.
“We have intelligence that (Daesh) leaders and their families are fleeing outside Iraq.”

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