QAYYARAH • Iraqi forces moved to retake the country's largest Christian town from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) yesterday, a key milestone in their progress towards the militants' main hub of Mosul, as the Pentagon accused ISIS of using Mosul residents as human shields.
News of the move to recapture Qaraqosh sparked jubilation among Christians who had fled the town, with many dancing and singing in the city of Arbil.
Launched on Monday, the long-awaited advance on Mosul was making quick progress, but United States President Barack Obama joined others in warning that the battle for ISIS's last Iraqi stronghold would be tough.
Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis on Tuesday said ISIS had for weeks kept Mosul's estimated population of 1.5 million from escaping, with the start of the offensive offering them no respite.
"We know they are being used as human shields, absolutely," he said. "They are being held there against their will. We have not seen any change in the last day of people leaving or fleeing."
Although there has been no mass exodus of civilians so far, Mr Obama warned of "significant" displacement in the coming weeks, saying the United Nations and other aid groups were ready to respond.
Officials have said the retaking of Mosul - Iraq's largest military operation in years - could take weeks or months.
Federal forces stormed Qaraqosh, about 15km south-east of Mosul, on Tuesday but ISIS fighters remained in the town. Units from Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service, which has done the heavy lifting in most recent operations against ISIS, were poised to flush the militants out, officers said.
Russia yesterday warned the US-led coalition against driving militants from Iraq to Syria - where Russia is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad purge ISIS fighters and rebels - in the offensive to recapture Mosul.
"It is necessary not to drive terrorists from one country to the other but to destroy them on the spot," Russian armed forces' chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov said in a statement.
Qaraqosh was the largest of many Christian towns and villages seized by ISIS, which swept across the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul in August 2014. The mass exodus it sparked displaced a large proportion of Iraq's already dwindling Christian minority, sending most into the neighbouring Kurdish region.
The US expects ISIS to use crude chemical weapons as the latter tries to repel the Iraqi-led offensive on Mosul, US officials say, although they added that the group's technical ability to develop such weapons is highly limited.
US forces have begun to regularly collect shell fragments to test for possible chemical agents, given ISIS' use of mustard agent in the months before Monday's launch of the Mosul offensive, one official said.
In a previously undisclosed incident, US forces confirmed the presence of a sulphur mustard agent on ISIS munition fragments on Oct 5, a second official said.
Sulphur mustard agents can cause blistering on exposed skin and lungs.
The "caliphate" that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in Mosul's Great Mosque in June 2014 once covered more than a third of Iraq and parts of Syria. But it has been shrinking steadily for more than a year, and losing Mosul would be a major setback for ISIS, all but ending its experiment in statehood.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS