KHAZIR, Iraq – Iraqi Kurdish forces advancing toward the northern city of Mosul paused Tuesday on the second day of a long-awaited offensive after the Islamic State mounted tough resistance in villages east of the strategic city.
The front lines were largely quiet after fierce fighting as Kurdish forces pushed to retake a string of villages on the edge of their territory and turn them into new footholds closer to Mosul. The city is the last main stronghold for the Islamic State in Iraq and represents a critical showdown for both sides.
However, the Iraqi military made some gains. The army’s 9th Division broke into the district of Hamdaniya, also on the eastern front, closing in on the Christian town of Qaraqosh, commanders said.
The intense fight for hamlets some 30 miles from the city suggested that the militants could fight for every inch outside the city, but also that they are unlikely to be able to hold on in the face of a coordinated advance and close air support from a U.S.-led coalition.
Residents who have recently fled the area and Iraqi officials with contacts inside Mosul say the Islamic State has been digging in for a fight, erecting concrete barricades and filling trenches full of oil that can be set on fire to slow advancing forces. The Islamic State claimed to have carried out 12 suicide attacks on the first day of the offensive, according to its affiliated news agency, Amaq. Jabbar Yawar, a spokesman for Kurdish peshmerga forces, said eight Kurdish soldiers were killed Monday and 16 injured.
The struggle for Mosul – which involves U.S. air power and an array of Iraqi ground forces – is the largest and most complex so far in the battle against Islamic State militants. It has brought an unprecedented level of military cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government in northern city of Irbil, which have long feuded over oil and land. But some small cracks in that alliance appeared Tuesday, as Kurdish and Iraqi commanders traded blame for delays in some operations in the east.
“These villages were small and simple, so we were expecting them to be easy,” said Brig. Gen. Haider al-Obaidi, an Iraqi special forces commander. He said military planners had thought the Islamic State would abandon them and reinforce elsewhere
“Right now we are waiting for the peshmerga to finish their job,” said Obaidi. “We are waiting for them to reach the areas they were supposed to reach under the military plan, so that we can move.”
By late Monday, Kurdish officials claimed to have retaken 75 square miles of territory – an area slightly bigger than the District of Columbia – although their degree of control over the territory remained unclear.
Demining teams were working to clear roads laced with booby traps and explosives.
A military agreement between Baghdad and Irbil gives the Kurds the task of retaking villages on the edge of their territory, before Iraqi forces move past them to Mosul, a large Sunni Muslim city where many worry about possible efforts by Kurds to expand their authority.
But two Kurdish officers said they were waiting for Iraqi army units to hold the ground before they can advance farther. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said Monday that Iraqi forces were doing better than expected on the first day of the Mosul operation and had met their objectives so far. Yawar also said the pause was “part of the plan.”
On the southern front, the Iraqi military said federal police and army forces had captured two villages. Iraqi forces claimed to have taken three other villages there Monday, plus a string of others on a third front near Gwer, to the southwest.
Commanders have debated how long it would take to capture Mosul, but there is little doubt it will take weeks, if not months. The city is being pincered from three directions.
At a meeting of his National Security Council last Friday, President Barack Obama was briefed on the Mosul operation as well as upcoming plans for an offensive against Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, a senior administration official said. The Mosul plan includes leaving open a western corridor for escaping militants, on the assumption that some can be picked off on the road, while most can be “trapped” in Raqqa, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the closed-door meeting.
U.S. forces are “postured to interdict” any forces seen leaving the city, a senior Obama administration official said in Washington. “But our assessment is that they’ll fight in Mosul; that’s one of the reasons why we think this will be a pretty lengthy battle.”
In Washington, Obama predicted Tuesday that the Islamic State would ultimately be pushed from Mosul, but also warned that “a difficult fight” was ahead.
While the militants managed to flee previous battles, such as in Fallujah, the official said that “in this case, there are less and less places for them to go, and to get there without it being pretty obvious.” The capture of towns such as Sinjar in Iraq and Shaddadi in Syria, both close to the border, “cut a lot of the main routes” between Iraq and Syria, the official said. “I’m not saying they can’t escape, but it would be less hospitable terrain.”
The repeated delays in mounting an offensive on Mosul have been attributed to the special challenges posed by the city, because of ethnic sensitivities and its sheer size. Iraqi officials estimate that at least 1.2 million residents remain in Mosul, raising fears of civilian casualties as well as a mass exodus. Officials are hastily erecting encampments for fleeing residents around Mosul, with relief workers warning that hundreds of thousands of people could soon become displaced.
The disparate forces pushing to play a role in Mosul’s liberation – including peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and government units supported by the United States – underscore the collective sense of trauma and anger in Iraq as the city has suffered under the brutal reign of the Islamic State since it stormed Mosul early in the summer of 2014.
Despite often-competing agendas, some of the forces have united to take back the militant group’s most prized remaining territory in the country.
But there are fears that any alliances will be only temporary because of competing interests in and around Mosul. Iraqi and U.S. officials have sought to build up a sense of momentum around the battle for Mosul, partly out of concern that rivalries will rise to the fore and hamper the military effort.
U.S. officials say that American troops, numbering more than 5,000 in Iraq, are helping to coordinate logistics, conduct planning and oversee the air campaign, while a smaller number are expected to move forward with Iraqi forces, including the Iraqi army, elite counterterrorism service troops and peshmerga.
Some 3,000 to 5,000 Islamic State fighters are estimated to remain within Mosul, according to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
In a sign of wider regional fallout from the Mosul battles, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said talks are planned later this week with Iraqi officials over the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq.
NATO member Turkey seeks a bigger role in the fight for Mosul, which is about 50 miles south of the Turkish border. Iraq has demanded that Turkey withdraw troops from a camp in northern Iraq, but Ankara insists it will remain to train local fighters and eventually take part in the Mosul campaign.
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