QAYYARAH (Iraq) • Iraqi forces say they made gains on the second day of an unprecedented offensive to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Iraqi and Kurdish forces closing in on Mosul said yesterday they had secured some 20 villages on the outskirts of the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq.
Residents reached by telephone said more than 100 families had started moving from the southern and eastern suburbs most exposed to the offensive to more central parts of the city. ISIS militants were preventing people from fleeing Mosul, they said, and one said they directed some towards buildings they had recently used themselves.
"It's quite clear Daesh (ISIS) has started to use civilians as human shields by allowing families to stay in buildings likely to be targeted by air strikes," said Mr Abu Mahir, who lives near the city's university. Like other residents contacted by telephone, he refused to give his full name, but Mr Abdul Rahman Waggaa, a member of the exiled provincial council of Nineveh of which Mosul is the capital, corroborated his account to Reuters.
Iraqi military and police forces have been joined on the battle front by an array of sometimes rival forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters and Iran-backed Shi'ite militia.
The advancing forces were still between 20km and 50km from Mosul in what officials described as a "shaping operation" designed to enhance positions ahead of a major offensive, by taking hilltops, crossings and important crossroads.
Iraqi forces have significant ground to cover before reaching the city, which ISIS is defending with berms, bombs and burning oil trenches. Demining teams were working to clear roads laced with booby traps and explosives.
Iraqi commanders said the vastly outnumbered ISIS fighters were hitting back with suicide car bombs.
Defeat in Mosul would deal a fatal blow to the "caliphate" declared two years ago after ISIS seized large parts of Iraq and Syria.
Advancing in armoured convoys on several fronts across the dusty plains surrounding Mosul, forces moved into villages defended by pockets of ISIS fighters after intensive aerial bombardment.
The United States military, which is leading a coalition providing air and ground support, said Iraqi forces even looked "ahead of schedule" but warned the battle would be long and difficult.
The US-led coalition said its supporting air strikes destroyed 52 targets on the first day of the operation. The Kurdish forces said coalition warplanes attacked 17 ISIS positions in support of the Peshmerga operation. Turkish jets have not yet been used but will be deployed when the time comes, Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said yesterday.
Massive columns of smoke rose from burning oil wells near the government forces' main staging base in Qayyarah, turning the sky grey for kilometres. A soldier at a checkpoint nearby said that ISIS set the wells on fire to provide cover from air strikes before the town of Qayyarah was retaken in late August. The fires had been burning ever since.
With around 1.5 million people still living in Mosul, the International Organisation for Migration said it was preparing gas masks in case of chemical attacks by ISIS, as it had done previously against Iraqi Kurdish forces.
With aid groups braced for a potentially massive humanitarian crisis, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande said on Monday that few civilians were as yet fleeing Mosul but that a major exodus could begin soon.
France said yesterday that it will host an international meeting tomorrow on the future of Mosul, to plan its stabilisation after the battle.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE