NEAR MOSUL, Iraq — Breaking: Less than 24 hours into an Iraqi-led offensive to reclaim the largest region in the country under ISIS control, forces east of Mosul had achieved key objectives, clearing nine villages and extending control over a key road, the General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan Region said.
Peshmerga forces in Khazir cleared nine villages in an area measuring approximately 200 square kilometers, the command said. The villages include Baskhira, Tarjala, Kharbat Sultan, Karbirli, Bazgirtan, Shaquli, Badana Bchuk, Badana Gawre, Shekh Amir and a tile factory West of Hasan Shami. They also secured an additional significant stretch of the Erbil-Mosul road, the statement said.
Iraq’s military says it has inflicted “heavy losses of life and equipment” on ISIS southeast of Mosul as Iraqi-led forces try to recapture it from the terror group.
“We have achieved a lot of success so far,” said Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces are playing a key role in the offensive, which started early Monday morning.
“This is the first time that the block of the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army are mixed and shared in the battlefield against the terrorist organization,” Barzani said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made a televised statement Monday announcing the start of the mission to retake Iraq’s second-largest city and free more than 1 million residents from the tyranny of life under ISIS.
Mosul is the largest city under ISIS control and its last remaining stronghold in Iraq.
The top anti-ISIS coalition general in Iraq, US Army Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, said the battle would be “a hard fight, but the Iraqi security forces are ready.”
The advancing forces can expect to encounter fierce resistance from thousands of ISIS fighters in the city, who have had months to prepare for the battle.
ISIS deployed suicide car bombers throughout the day Monday, CNN’s Arwa Damon said from near Mosul.
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.
Iraqi parliamentarian Mowaffak al-Rubaie said the violence, currently limited to villages surrounding the city’s outskirts, would get much more intense once Iraqi forces reached Mosul’s urban center, where they could be met with car bombs and improvised explosive devices.
ISIS ‘willing to put up a fight’
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, who is embedded with a Peshmerga convoy near Mosul, said he saw “staggering scenes” as forces advanced toward the city, with sporadic fighting erupting as they encountered ISIS fighters.
The anti-ISIS coalition greatly outnumbered its opponents, and had the benefit of calling in air support from the roughly 90 coalition and Iraqi planes involved in the operation whenever they met resistance, he said.
“They obviously have overwhelming numbers here and are moving very quickly against ISIS,” Paton Walsh said. “But ISIS is showing that it’s very willing to put up a fight.”
ISIS attempted to drive suicide car bombs toward the Peshmerga convoy several times during the advance.
But on the whole, he said, Peshmerga commanders felt they were encountering less resistance than they expected.
At least nine villages on the outskirts of Mosul were liberated during the Peshmerga advance, Iraqi state news television reported.
Paton Walsh was caught in an exchange of gunfire as he was filing a dispatch.
“We were doing a live shot on the main road, and ISIS still has fighters in that town hiding out, and they pop up occasionally and take potshots,” he said.
Paton Walsh and his team — the first Western media outlet to travel along the road into Mosul during the offensive — were unharmed in the exchange.
Before Mosul was seized by ISIS in June 2014, forming a vital part of its self-declared caliphate across swaths of Iraq and Syria, the oil-rich city had more than 2 million residents.
Only about 1 million residents of the once-diverse city remain today.
The battle for Mosul may last weeks or even months, if the operation to retake Ramadi is any indicator.
A diverse coalition of as many as 100,000 troops will play a role in the operation, although 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.
The force includes 54,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces, according to a senior US official, and 40,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, according to a senior Peshmerga commander.
It also involves 14,000 members of paramilitary units — 9,000 Sunni fighters, and 5,000 from other minorities including Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis. Shia paramilitaries will not be involved in the assault on Mosul, but will be tasked with securing areas around the city instead.
Only Iraqi army troops and members of the national police force will enter the city of Mosul, Abadi said, amid fears of sectarian retribution during the operation.
The Pentagon, which has lent advisers and air support, has earmarked about 500 of its nearly 5,000 service members in the country for the mission. Most are working on logistics, although there are also special operations forces among that number.
Setting fires to defend itself
ISIS militants have taken measures to combat the effectiveness of airstrikes supporting the offensive.
Plumes of black smoke rose from burning oil-filled trenches outside northeastern Mosul, an attempt by ISIS to obscure its fighters’ positions during airstrikes, military sources said. Still, one airstrike hit one of Mosul’s main bridges.
But retired US Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the advantage of the Iraqi military’s air power would be nullified when it came to block-to-block fighting in Mosul’s urban center.
He said improvised explosive devices would likely play a major part in the city’s center.
Outside Mosul, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a military checkpoint in southern Baghdad that killed 10 people and wounded 17 on Monday, a security source said. The victims included civilians, soldiers and police.
Humanitarian crisis looms
Mosul’s residents remain in the clutches of an organization known for exploiting civilians as human shields. Airdropped leaflets told residents to tape up their windows, disconnect gas cylinders, and stay indoors.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that up to 1.5 million people could be affected by the battle for the city, with civilians in Mosul facing potential threats from sniper attacks, booby traps, crossfire and explosives.