Battle to drive ISIL from west Mosul begins
ERBIL // Iraq’s armed forces on Sunday began their assault to dislodge ISIL from west Mosul in a fight that could bring even more bloodshed than the liberation of the eastern half of the city.
Prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced the next stage in the campaign to rid Iraq’s second largest city from the extremist group, which seized Mosul in June 2014, in a brief televised address.
“We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul,” he said, referring to the province surrounding the city.
Iraqi special forces succeeded in liberating the eastern part of the city last month, after more than two months of gruelling urban combat that took a heavy toll on the military and civilians alike.
Soon after daybreak on Sunday, long columns of armoured vehicles moved on Mosul from the south, advancing parallel to the Tigris river that bisects the city.
The initial advance will focus on the airport on Mosul’s southern edge. To reach their target, Iraqi forces have to clear the outer suburb of Albu Saif and take the adjacent high ground.
The first phase of the operation is being carried out by the Federal Police, a paramilitary outfit, and the elite Emergency Response Forces, both under the auspices of the interior ministry.
To reach the city, they have to cross several kilometres of gently rolling hills, and reportedly made good progress on Sunday by taking a string of isolated hamlets scattered in the arid, dusty landscape.
But there is little prospect of west Mosul falling quickly. The west bank of the Tigris is home to the city’s historic centre, a maze of winding, narrow alleys and dense housing. Its population is thought to be more sympathetic to ISIL than the residents of east Mosul. There are likely to be more than 2,000 fanatical fighters remaining in the last major ISIL stronghold in Iraq, and they are expected to put up a fierce fight.
“Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world,” said Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led Combined Joint Task Force that is assisting the Iraqi military.
Elite counterterrorism troops, known as Iraqi Special Operations Forces, completed the liberation of east Mosul by mid-January. They have massed in preparation for the next fight, but have not been committed yet.
“There is a phase for each security force to take part in the battle, and we are waiting for the next stage in the plan,” said Major Sabah Alnuman, an ISOF spokesman.
As many as half of the roughly 5,000 ISIL fighters thought to be in Mosul when the campaign to liberate the city began on October 17 could still be holed up on the west bank. Coalition air strikes destroyed all five bridges across the Tigris, preventing the insurgents from sending reinforcements to battle ISOF on the east bank. This helped the special forces secure east Mosul, but also stopped further attrition of ISIL’s forces.
ISIL deployed suicide car bombs in huge numbers to slow the ISOF advance. Civilian cars laden with home-made explosives and protected by metal sheets welded to their frame, these so-called vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, inflicted heavy losses. Easy to assemble, VBIEDs are likely to remain a major danger as the fighting resumes in the west.
Suicide bombings also remain a menace in the liberated east, as attacks by ISIL sleeper cells have disrupted the return to normality there. A series of car bombs were set off in east Mosul on Sunday, as ISIL attempts to tie down Iraqi forces in the liberated part of the city.
The civilian suffering caused by the fighting in east Mosul will almost certainly be equalled or surpassed by the battle for the west.
The UN estimates that up to 800,000 civilians are trapped in west Mosul, in increasingly dire conditions. Food has become scarce since militias allied to the government cut of the last route into the city late last year. Many families only eat one meal a day, and burn furniture and waste to keep warm in the winter nights, the UN says.
“The situation is distressing. People, right now, are in trouble,” said Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
There is little certainty over the number of civilians killed or wounded during the campaign so far. But it is clear that car bombs, indiscriminate shelling and targeted sniper fire by ISIL on areas no longer under its control have exacted a heavy toll. Air strikes and artillery fire on ISIL positions have not only destroyed infrastructure and homes, but also claimed civilian lives.
The UN puts the number of civilians treated for battle-related wounds and injuries at well over 2,000 since the campaign began in October. Nearly 200,000 people have been displaced in that period.
As the fighting intensifies in western Mosul, the human cost of the liberation will continue to rise.
Updated: February 19, 2017 04:00 AM