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Iraq's Military Launches a Long-Term Operation to Retake Mosul

Iraqi officials say they will retake Mosul this year but many question whether the army, which partially collapsed when IS overran a third of the country in June 2014, will be ready in time.
Photo by Ali Mohammed/EPA

Iraq's armed forces started an offensive against Islamic State (IS) in the northerly Nineveh province on Thursday, in what was described as the first stage of an operation aimed at liberating the key city of Mosul.

The assault was launched from the Makhmour area, where thousands of Iraqi troops have deployed in recent weeks, setting up base alongside Kurdish and US forces around 37 miles south of Mosul.

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Backed by air power from a US-led coalition and by Kurdish peshmerga forces, Iraqi troops advanced westwards, recapturing several villages from the Islamist militants, according to multiple military sources.

"The first phase of the Fatah (Conquest) Operation has been launched at dawn to liberate Nineveh, raising the Iraqi flag in several villages," said a military statement cited by state TV.

Iraqi officials say they will retake Mosul this year but, in private, many question whether the army, which partially collapsed when IS overran a third of the country in June 2014, will be ready in time.

Any operation will almost certainly be very long-term and gradual — evidenced by the fact the current offensive is separated from Mosul by almost 40 miles and the river Tigris.

Related: Video Shows Islamic State Smashing Ancient Artifacts in Mosul

The city, home to 2 million people before being taken over by the ultra-hardline jihadist group, is by far the largest center it controls in either Iraq or Syria, and is still heavily populated, complicating efforts to retake it.

The military statement urged civilians to stay away from buildings used by the insurgents, warning that they would be targeted in days to come.

"Iraqi security forces in Makhmour… are beginning to expand the forward line of troops," said Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition.

Makhmour is located in a strategic triangle of territory between IS's core area of control in northwestern Iraq and the Hawija area, from which the militants have threatened oil installations around Kirkuk.

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Thursday's advance brings Iraqi forces closer to the oil town of Qayyara on the banks of the river Tigris, control over which would help to isolate Hawija from Mosul.

A Shia militia leader met Kurdish peshmerga commanders last week to discuss plans to push the insurgents out of the Hawija area together with the Iraqi army.

The offensive should also reduce the threat to the base in Makhmour, which has come under repeated attack from IS, resulting in the death of a US Marine last week.

Watch the VICE News documentary: Peshmerga vs. the Islamic State: The Road to Mosul:

The Iraqi military statement named the villages recaptured as al-Nasr, Garmandi, Kudila, and Khurburdan.

Peshmerga soldiers criticized the Iraqi advance in comments to Kurdish news service Rudaw. "They should approach the villages in armored vehicles, not on foot," said Ali Ahmed.

Another, Honar Harki, was impatient with the pace of the operation. "We should just tell them to give us their missiles and we'll do the work and liberate those villages for them," he said.

Related: The US Military Is Laying the Groundwork to Take Back Iraq's Second Largest City