EAST OF MOSUL (Iraq) • The offensive to seize back Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is going faster than planned, Iraq's Prime Minister said yesterday, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages around the city.
"The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced to Western diplomats in a video call to Paris.
Mr Abadi announced the start of the offensive to retake Mosul on Monday, two years after the city fell to the militants, who declared from its Grand Mosque a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria.
A US-led coalition that includes France, Italy, Britain, Canada and other Western nations is providing air and ground support to the forces that are closing in on the city.
Kurdish forces launched a major assault yesterday on a town held by ISIS near Mosul, opening a new front in the offensive.
The main target of the latest Kurdish push was the town of Bashiqa, north-east of Mosul. Iraqi forces also pressed assaults towards the city from the east and south.
"The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL's movements," the peshmerga command said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
Mosul is the last big city stronghold held by ISIS in Iraq. Raqqa is the capital of the group in Syria.
ISIS leaders have been fleeing Mosul, a US general said on Wednesday. US Army Major-General Gary Volesky, who heads the land component command of the US-led coalition, predicted that foreign fighters will end up forming a large contingent of militants remaining in the city, as they have nowhere else to go.
The administration of Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province is one of the main topics of discussion for world leaders.
There are concerns the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni group would cause new sectarian and ethnic violence, fuelled by a desire to avenge atrocities inflicted on minority groups.
Nineveh is a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups - Arab, Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis, Shi'ites - with Sunni Arabs making up the overwhelming majority.
Four days into the assault on Mosul, Iraqi government forces and allied Kurdish peshmerga fighters are steadily recovering outlying territory before the main push into the city begins.
The militants are using suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and snipers to push back the attack, and are pounding surrounding areas with mortar fire, a spokesman from the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service said at a nearby location.
In some areas, the Iraqi advance was met by a trickle of civilians fleeing both the fighting and the militants, but the feared mass exodus from Mosul has yet to materialise.
To the north, Kurdish peshmerga shot down with machine guns an unmanned drone that came from ISIS lines a few kilometres away.
It was not clear if the drone was carrying explosives or just on reconnaissance. "There have been times when they dropped explosives," said Halgurd Hasan, one of the Kurdish fighters deployed in a position overlooking the plain north of Mosul.
Ali Awni, a Kurdish officer, kept a handheld radio receiver open on a frequency used by ISIS. "They are giving targets for their mortars," he said. "Liberating Mosul is important for the security of Kurdistan," he added. "We will have to fight them in the mind as well, to defeat their ideology."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE