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Iraqi forces launch offensive to recapture Mosul from IS

Army spokesman says several villages already retaken as Iraqi forces backed by US air strikes advance on IS-held city
An Iraqi soldier stands guard at the entrance of an army base in Nineveh province (AFP)

Iraqi forces on Thursday launched an offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group, the Iraqi army said in a statement broadcast on state television.

Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state TV that Iraqi army forces and allied militia fighters backed by airstrikes had already recaptured several villages.

"The first phase of the Fatah [Conquest] Operation has been launched at dawn to liberate Nineveh, raising the Iraqi flag in several villages," the statement said.

The army said that four villages had been captured between its base at Makhmour and the still IS-held town of Qayyarah.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region have also been heavily involved in the campaign against IS in northern Iraq.

The peshmerga deputy commander for the sector, Araz Mirkhan, confirmed to the AFP news agency on Thursday that the offensive had started.

"Iraq forces in Makhmur have begun their advance towards Qayyarah to the south of Mosul."

The US-led coalition said it carried out three airstrikes in the Qayyarah area on Wednesday.

"Near Qayyarah, three strikes struck an ISIL (IS) communication facility and destroyed an ISIL-used bridge section and denied ISIL access to terrain," it said in a statement.

It also launched eight strikes in the broader Mosul region.

Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, was captured by IS in 2014 and is the biggest city in the group's self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. More than two million people lived in the city at the time, although the current population is believed to be smaller.

Preparations for an assault on Mosul have been under way for months, with thousands of Iraqi troops having been moved to Nineveh province since mid-February.

US military advisers have also been sent to train thousands of anti-IS volunteers from the surrounding area. 

Iraqi security forces earlier this month launched an offensive to drive IS militants from the desert of al-Jazeera, in western Salahideen province, and cut off IS supply routes between Anbar and Mosul, military officers said, in the first step to build up momentum to liberate the city.

But military analysts and officials spoken to by MEE admit the battle for Mosul is likely to be "complicated" and "difficult," and that a direct assault on the city would only come after IS had been cleared from the surrounding towns and villages.

"These areas have to be liberated first before any movement to liberate Mosul," Rashad Ghalali, the commander of the Iraqi Kurdish forces stationed in Makhmour, told MEE. 

Iraqi sources told MEE earlier this month that the attack on Mosul would be launched from three hubs: Makhmour to the east of the city, Shirqat 115km south, and Bashiqa, 12km northwest. US-led air power will create a "heavy firewall" to cut supply roads between Mosul and IS-held areas in Syria to the west.

Sources said that Kurdish forces, elite Iraqi soldiers and Shia-dominated militias would form the vanguard of operations, with regular Iraqi army forces holding recaptured areas in their stead.

"The battle of Mosul is decisive, complicated and difficult and for sure it will be different than the battles of Tikrit and Anbar," a senior Iraqi military officer told MEE.

"Relying on the regular troops and the people of Mosul who volunteered to fight alongside our forces will give people inside Mosul an insurance that they are not targeted and no one will harm them as long as they do not fight alongside Daesh [IS]."