AL BUSEIF, Iraq (3rd UPDATE) – Iraqi forces seized 15 villages from the Islamic State (ISIS) group Sunday, February 19, launching a daunting operation to retake west Mosul which aid groups warned will put civilians in grave danger.
Advancing from several directions, the forces moved towards Mosul airport just south of the city, marking a new phase in Iraq's largest military operation in years.
ISIS has put up stiff resistance to defend Mosul, the city where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria in 2014.
A top army commander announced that forces led by federal police units retook villages south of Mosul, including Athbah, leaving them within striking distance of the airport.
"We launched our operation at 7:00 am (0400 GMT)... We are heading towards the airport," said Abbas al-Juburi of the interior ministry's elite Rapid Response force.
The sky south of Mosul was black with smoke from air strikes and artillery as thousands of forces in armored convoys worked converged on the airport.
"They're desperate," Ali, a Rapid Response officer, said in the village of Al-Buseif as helicopters flew overhead, tracking the last ISIS fighters attempting to flee.
"They'll try to cause as many losses as possible, because they know they're going to die anyway," his colleague Alaa said.
Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary forces also contributed to the advance on Mosul and to a tally of 15 recaptured villages for the day, according to a statement by top army commander Abdulamir Yarallah.
The jihadists overran Mosul and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in 2014, routing security forces ill-prepared to face the assault.
The government began the offensive to reconquer Mosul on October 17, throwing tens of thousands of men into the long-awaited counter-attack with air and ground support from a US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
The Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against ISIS declared east Mosul "fully liberated" on January 24.
But it took Iraq's most seasoned forces – the elite Counter-Terrorism Service – more than two months to clear the eastern side of Mosul.
After a pause, federal forces now face what was always billed as the toughest nut to crack: Mosul's west bank, home to the narrow streets of the Old City.
"West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale," said Patrick Skinner from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.
The coalition said it carried out a total of 40 air strikes on Saturday, February 18, 9 of which hit targets in the Mosul area.
"The US forces continue in the same role they were in in east Mosul and the coalition forces are in support of this operation," US Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters during a trip to the United Arab Emirates.
More than half of the 9,000-plus coalition forces deployed in Iraq are American, and some were visible on the front line Sunday.
Recent incidents in the recaptured east point to the difficulty of ensuring ISIS remnants have not blended in with the civilian population.
Aid organizations had feared an exodus of unprecedented proportions before the start of the Mosul operation, but half a million – a significant majority – of residents stayed home in east Mosul.
Their continued presence prevented both sides from resorting to deadlier weaponry, which may have slowed down the battle but averted greater displacement and destruction.
The aid community fears a bigger exodus from west Mosul, however.
"We are racing against the clock to prepare emergency sites south of Mosul to receive displaced families," the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said in a statement.
Residents of west Mosul have reported very difficult living conditions and warned that they were already low on food, with weeks of fighting expected ahead.
Concern for civilians
Save the Children urged all parties to protect the estimated 350,000 children currently trapped in west Mosul.
"This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay – or execution and snipers if they try to run," said the charity's Iraq director, Maurizio Crivallero.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said at the beginning of the year that three more months were needed to rid the country of ISIS.
That timetable already looks optimistic, but the Norwegian Refugee Council said civilian lives should be the only priority.
"The ultimate success of the offensive will be judged not on how many districts and villages are taken back but on how well Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition protect civilians in the coming weeks and months," NRC's Iraq director Wolfgang Gressmann said.
The recapture of Mosul would effectively end ISIS's days as a land-holding force in Iraq, with only a pocket around the town of Hawijah and small towns near the Syria border still under its control.
An alliance of Arab and Kurdish forces also backed by the coalition is currently advancing on Raqa in Syria, the only other major hub the jihadists still hold in their now crumbling "caliphate". – Rappler.com