BAGHDAD • Kurdish forces began advancing on a string of villages east of Mosul yesterday, the start of a long-awaited campaign to reclaim Iraq's second-largest city from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The offensive comes as aid groups raised concern over the fate of over one million trapped city residents.
About 4,000 Kurdish Peshmerga troops are involved in the operation to retake 10 villages, the opening phase of a battle that could take weeks or months and could involve nearly 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops, with US warplanes providing air support.
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces, which work closely with US Special Operations commandos in Iraq, are also expected to join the Kurdish forces in the coming days.
The operation began hours after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in a brief speech aired on state television just before 2am local time that the long-awaited campaign to liberate Sunni-majority Mosul had begun.
"The Iraqi flag will be raised in the middle of Mosul, and in each village and corner very soon," said Mr Abadi, dressed in a military uniform and surrounded by officers.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said in Washington the start of the Mosul campaign was a "decisive moment" in the effort to defeat ISIS.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday said his largely Sunni country would play a role in the US-backed offensive, saying it was unthinkable for Ankara to stay on the sidelines. "We will be in the operation and we will be at the table," he said in a televised speech. "Our brothers are there and our relatives are there. It is out of the question that we are not involved."
In the first phase, the troops who have been massing at bases around Mosul in recent weeks will encircle the city, seeking to cut it off and prevent ISIS fighters from fleeing, particularly west into Syria.
Later, the counter-terrorism forces, which took the lead in liberating other Iraqi cities, like Ramadi and Fallujah, from ISIS will join regular army units in storming the city.
Yesterday, television footage showed Iraqi tanks advancing, with plumes of black smoke billowing in the distance. Dead bodies were shown lying next to burnt-out vehicles that the Kurdish Rudaw news network said belonged to ISIS. "They were screaming in Arabic," said one Peshmerga fighter. "I killed them. Only one fought back." he said. "Long live the Peshmerga!"
The offensive, which has assumed considerable importance for US President Barack Obama as his term draws to a close, is fraught with risks. These include sectarian conflict between Mosul's mainly Sunni population and advancing Shi'ite forces, and the potential for more than a million people to flee the city, multiplying a refugee crisis in the region and across Europe.
Humanitarian agencies predict that more than one million people could be affected by the offensive, the United Nations refugee agency said last month. Nearly one in 10 Iraqis have been displaced due to conflict since 2014.
Mosul fell to the Sunni fighters of ISIS in June 2014, when soldiers of the Iraqi army, built up with tens of billions of dollars of support from the US, fled. Initially, many Sunni residents of Mosul, angered at what they perceived as second-class treatment from the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad, welcomed the militants.
But they changed their minds after more than two years of ISIS' brutal rule, with public beheadings and tough rules that ban smoking and force women to cover up in public.
NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS