Iraqi, Kurdish forces make early gains as first day of Mosul operation takes hold

Monday raqi government and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air and ground support, launched coordinated military operations as the long-awaited fight to wrest the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State fighters got underway. But the battle for Mosul is likely to be long and at was unclear at this early stage when the troops would enter the city itself.

Also, the fate of civilians trapped inside Mosul will also be critical as the battle intensifies in the days and weeks ahead amid concerns that the extremist Islamic State could use them as potential human shields.

In the morning hours Monday, convoys of Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces moved east of Mosul along the front line as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes sent plumes of smokes into the air and heavy artillery rounds could be heard.

The move came shortly after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operations on state television, launching the country on its toughest battle since American troops left nearly five years ago.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has been under IS rule for more than two years and is still home to more than a million civilians according to U.N. estimates.

“These forces that are liberating you today, they have one goal in Mosul which is to get rid of Daesh and to secure your dignity,” al-Abadi said, addressing the city’s residents and using the Arabic language acronym for the Islamic State group. “God willing, we shall win.”

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The push to retake Mosul will be the largest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011 and, if successful, the biggest blow yet to the Islamic State. Al-Abadi pledged the fight for the city would lead to the liberation of all Iraqi territory from the militants this year.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the launch of the Mosul operation “a decisive moment in the campaign” to deliver a lasting defeat to IS.

Iraqi forces have been massing around the city in recent days, including elite special forces that are expected to lead the charge into the city, as well as Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters, federal police and Shiite militia forces.

South of Mosul, Iraqi military units are based at the sprawling Qayara air base, but to the city’s east, men are camped out in abandoned homes as the tens of thousands of troops massed around the city have overwhelmed the few military bases in the area.

Kurdish forces are stationed to the north and east of Mosul, a mostly Sunni city that has long been a center of insurgent activity and anti-central government sentiment after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraqi officials have warned that the Mosul operation has been rushed before a political agreement has been set for how the city will be governed after IS.

Military operations are also predicted to displace 200,000 to a million people, according to the United Nations. Just a few kilometers from the eastern front line, rows of empty camps for displaced civilians line the road, but aid groups say they only have enough space for some 100,000 people.

In Geneva, a senior U.N. official said he’s “extremely concerned” for the safety of civilians in Mosul. Stephen O’Brien, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that as many as “1 million people may be forced to flee their homes in a worst-case scenario.”

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He warned that families are at “extreme risk” of being caught in crossfire, and that tens of thousands may end up besieged or held as human shields and thousands could be forcibly expelled.

In the midst of a deep financial crisis, the Iraqi government says it lacks the funds to adequately prepare for the humanitarian fallout of the Mosul fight. In some cases commanders say they are encouraging civilians to stay in their homes rather than flee.

“While we may be celebrating a military victory (after the Mosul operation is complete),” said Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister for Iraq’s Kurdish region, “we don’t want to have also created a humanitarian catastrophe.”

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