The battle to retake Mosul from ISIS began Monday. Early reports suggest that Iraqi government forces and Kurdish peshmerga troops have made small but significant gains against the extremist group on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell under ISIS control in 2014.
Kurdish fighters made the first advances on Mosul from the east; they have reportedly freed up nine towns on the edges of the city. Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, said that peshmerga forces have retaken a total of about 80 square miles from ISIS. The Kurdish fighters have also secured a key road so that Iraqi government forces can push farther west, into the heart of the city.
The Iraqi government is leading the offensive from the ground. About 30,000 troops make up the pro-Iraqi coalition, which include the Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Sunni tribal forces. The United States, which ramped up the number of troops in advance of this critical assault, is providing air support, and logistical and technical assistance.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the Iraqi coalition forces “have met their objectives so far and that they are ahead of schedule.”
As Kurdish fighters approach from the northeast, about 45,000 Iraqi troops are also pushing forward from the southeast. A spokesman for the military said Iraqi troops had caused “heavy losses of life and equipment.” Advances have been met with resistance from ISIS in the east and south. According to BBC, Amaq, the ISIS-run news agency, said at least eight suicide bombers attacked Kurdish forces. Iraqi government sources backed up those reports, but according to CNN, the ISIS defenses weren’t as intense as initially expected in the first hours of battle. Yet the militants will likely ratchet up those guerrilla tactics — suicide and car bombs, and IEDs — as the pro-Iraqi troops inch closer and closer to Mosul’s center.
The battle for Mosul is expected to last weeks and even months. ISIS has an estimated 6,000 fighters embedded in the city, and have had at least two years to booby-trap the area and prepare defenses. Aid groups also fear for a massive humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped within the city as two sides wage war. Thousands of civilians may also attempt to flee, putting themselves in the crossfire as they attempt to get out of Mosul. Iraqi security forces dropped leaflets that warned people to shelter in their homes and assured residents civilians would not be targeted. Still, one 35-year-old Mosul resident told The Guardian that militants are trying to blend in among the civilian population, “moving into civilian houses and mixing with the population.” There are fears that ISIS may try to use civilians as human shields.
Warfare also entered a new digital era after several news organizations posted live feeds, streaming on Facebook, that capture the Mosul front lines in real time:
An Iraqi victory in Mosul would be a huge strategic gain: The major Iraqi city is the largest still held by ISIS. It would also deal a symbolic blow to the Islamic State, which just lost control of Dabiq, a Syrian metropolis that ISIS claimed would be the site of the final battle between Muslims and nonbelievers. Mosul, too, plays into the ISIS end-times mythology. In 2014, ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the leader of the caliphate on the steps of Mosul’s Great Mosque.