Mosul offensive: Territory recaptured from ISIS
NEAR MOSUL, Iraq (CNN) — A suicide car bomb, sowing panic as it plows relentlessly toward Peshmerga positions. An ISIS fighter who ambushes Kurdish troops from a concealed tunnel before blowing himself up.
These were the visceral indications of how dedicated and single-minded Mosul’s ISIS occupiers can be, and equally how bloody and grinding Iraq’s battle to take back the city could be.
As dawn broke Tuesday, the second day of the offensive to liberate Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS, a diverse coalition of Iraqi troops, Kurdish Peshmerga allies and thousands of Iraqi irregulars gritted their teeth and prepared to again meet militant forces in the dusty scrubland outside the city.
One Iraqi soldier was killed and another two injured while repelling car suicide bombs targeting troops around 30 miles south of the city, according to Maj. Amin Shekhani of the Iraqi army. He added that 10 ISIS fighters were killed in the operation.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday that Iraqi forces have “met their objectives” so far and are “ahead of schedule,” but added that the offensive “will be a difficult campaign that could take some time.”
Since attacking at first light Monday, Iraqi forces had made “substantial progress along several avenues of advance,” in the “largest battle (Iraqi forces) have taken on to date,” US Central Command spokesman Col. John Dorrian told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“The noose is tightening on Mosul.”
More than 75 square miles of territory and as many as nine villages had been taken from ISIS control.
Less than 24 hours in, the Iraqi military had already declared that it had inflicted “heavy losses of life and equipment” and CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, on the ground just outside Mosul, ISIS’ remaining stronghold in the country, says that some of the day’s skirmishes have been “staggering.”
On one approach road, Peshmerga forces seeking to liberate a village on the outskirts of the city return ISIS fire with old, cumbersome weapons. There is panic as an ISIS suicide car bomb careens toward their position, and rockets are unleashed to take it out. It’s hit on the third time of asking.
On the whole, however, Peshmerga commanders encountered less resistance than expected, Paton Walsh said.
Paton Walsh was caught in an exchange of gunfire as he was filing a dispatch. The CNN team, the first Western media outlet to travel along the road into Mosul during the offensive, were unharmed in the exchange.
Peshmerga forces, which are playing a key role in the offensive, cleared nine villages in an area measuring approximately 77 square miles (200 square kilometers). Forces east of Mosul also secured control over a significant stretch of the Erbil-Mosul road, a key strategic route, the General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan Region said.
Dorrian said that most of the resistance had come in the form of mortar and small arms fire, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Iraqi leaflets dropped from planes onto the city have urged Mosul’s residents to shelter in their homes and to disconnect gas lines. Several months ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had told CNN that he was “counting on” Mosul’s population to rise up against their oppressors when the operation commenced.
For ISIS, the capture of Mosul formed a vital part of its self-declared caliphate across swaths of Iraq and Syria, in addition to assaults on Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja. One by one, in the past two years, coalition forces have reclaimed those cities.
While the Iraqi coalition is overwhelmingly superior in terms of numbers and firepower — with forces numbering around 100,000 and air support from roughly 90 coalition and Iraqi planes — “ISIS is showing that it’s very willing to put up a fight,” Paton Walsh said.
The terror group is deploying suicide bombers against advancing Iraqi forces, CNN’s Arwa Damon, also on the ground in northern Iraq, reports.
ISIS, which has been on the back foot in Iraq and some parts of Syria in recent months, has constructed elaborate defenses in the city, including tunnels, barriers and trenches, as well as planting IEDs.
“Mosul is going to be a very tough battle,” Dorrian said. In addition to airstrikes and logistical support, he said that the US is providing advice to Iraqi allies.
For now, violence is limited to the villages on the city’s outskirts. But the coalition is expected to encounter fierce resistance from thousands of ISIS fighters in Mosul’s urban center, armed with car bombs and IEDs.
One of the challenges will be coordinating and keeping the Peshmerga and militia forces on-side. Kurdish and militia troops have been ordered to stand down and allow Iraqi government troops to enter the city.
While as many as 100,000 troops will play a role in the operation, not all will be directly involved in the assault on the city. Some will secure positions behind the front lines or play other supporting roles.
Before ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014, the oil-rich city had more than two million residents. Today, about one million remain.
US military officials have estimated up to 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, but the terror group’s supporters say there are 7,000.
Humanitarian crisis looms
Refugee agencies are anticipating that the fight for Mosul could trigger a humanitarian crisis as up to a million people could be displaced.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has five camps ready to shelter up to 45,000 Iraqis displaced by the offensive and it could handle up to 120,000 if the agency finds sites for more camps.
The city holds both strategic and symbolic importance — since being overrun at lightning speed by ISIS fighters two years ago it remains the largest Iraqi city under militant control and was the city from which ISIS first declared its caliphate.