Coalition huddles as forces inch towards Mosul

Agence France-Presse
(UPDATED) Forces from the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) retook areas close to the eastern outskirts of Mosul, ISIS's last major urban stronghold in Iraq

MOSUL CAMPAIGN. Iraqi forces gather in the al-Shura area, south of Mosul, on October 24, 2016, during an operation to retake the main hub city from the Islamic State group jihadists. Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP

QARAQOSH, Iraq (UPDATED) – Iraqi forces were inching to within striking distance of eastern Mosul Tuesday, October 25, as defense chiefs from the US-led coalition met in Paris to review the offensive on the jihadist bastion.

With the Mosul battle in its second week, French President Francois Hollande called for the coalition against the Islamic State group to prepare for the aftermath and the next stages of the war against ISIS.

Forces from the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) retook areas close to the eastern outskirts of Mosul, ISIS’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

“On our front, we have advanced to within five or six kilometers (three to four miles) of Mosul,” their commander, General Abdelghani al-Assadi, told AFP.

“We must now coordinate with forces on other fronts to launch a coordinated” attack on Mosul, he said, speaking from the Christian town of Bartalla.

Kurdish peshmerga forces are making gains on the northeastern front, but federal forces advancing from the south have some way to go before reaching the outskirts.

Meanwhile, thousands of men from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary umbrella group dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias were preparing for a push to the west of Mosul.

The Hashed leadership has ordered “us to assume the mission of liberating the Tal Afar district”, said Jawwad al-Tulaibawi, spokesman for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, referring to an area west of the mainly Sunni city.

The Hashed’s mission will be to “cut off and prevent the escape of (ISIS) towards Syria and fully isolate Mosul from Syria”, Tulaibawi told AFP.

Turkey threat

“We expect that it will be a difficult and fierce battle,” he said.

Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed the Hashed’s participation in the operation, as has Turkey, which has a military presence east of Mosul despite repeated demands by Baghdad to withdraw its forces.

Tensions have risen between Baghdad and Ankara, whose foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned Tuesday that if there is a threat to Turkey, “we are ready to use all our resources including a ground operation”.

In Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was meeting coalition counterparts, including Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, to review the war on IS after more than two years of air strikes, training and on-the-ground military advisers.

Besides coordinating their support for the forces closing in on Mosul, ministers will also attempt to iron out differences over priorities in the campaign.

France is keen to tackle the jihadists’ Syria bastion Raqa, where a large number of French foreign fighters in ISIS ranks are stationed.

As the ministers met, Hollande warned that “the recapture is not an end in itself. We must already anticipate the consequences of the fall of Mosul.”

“What is at stake is the political future of the city, the region and Iraq,” Hollande said, calling for “all ethnic and religious groups” to have a say in the future running of Mosul.

Looking to Raqa

He also called on the ministers to set out “the stages of the next operations” against ISIS, namely retaking Raqa.

While the jihadists in Mosul are outnumbered about one to 10, there are insufficient forces currently available to take on the estimated 3,000-4,000 ISIS fighters in Raqa.

Seeking to draw attention away from the Mosul campaign, ISIS has staged attacks in the northern city Kirkuk and western town of Rutba in recent days.

Jihadists seized two neighborhoods in Rutba, but officials said that as of Tuesday it was fully back in government hands.

Senior Iraqi and US military officials have reported that ISIS leaders are already trying to leave Mosul to reach the Syrian side of their “caliphate”.

But a senior official close to Le Drian said a few hundred ISIS fighters recently moved in the opposite direction, reinforcing the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 jihadists defending Mosul.

ISIS had shown increasing pragmatism in recent battles, tending to fall back in the face of superior firepower.

But with its claim to run a “caliphate” losing credibility with every new loss of territory, ISIS has mounted a fierce and well-organised resistance in the fight for Mosul.

Mosul is where ISIS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the cross-border “caliphate” in June 2014, and its loss could spell the end of the group’s days as a land-holding force in the Iraqi part.

In Moscow Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov equated US support for Iraqi efforts to recapture Mosul with Russian backing of a Syrian government offensive to seize rebel-held eastern Aleppo. –