Early Monday morning, Iraqi and Kurdish troops backed by a U.S.-led coalition began an operation to retake the city of Mosul, which has been under the control of the Islamic State group for the past two years. Mosul is the last and largest stronghold in Iraq for the terrorist group, and the offensive is being seen as a crucial step in the ongoing U.S. effort to train Iraqi forces and debilitate IS.
Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul fell to the so-called Islamic State in 2014 when the Iraqi army fled without a fight. The city holds symbolic significance for the terrorist group as it is the location where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first declared he had established an Islamic caliphate. Mosul’s critical location on the banks of the Tigris River makes it a vital transportation hub between Syria and Iraq. And to the north of the city lie large oil fields and a key oil pipeline into Turkey.
As the battle for Mosul begins, here are five major things to know:
The Iraqi army has been dropping leaflets to warn residents that a battle is imminent.
Tens of thousands of leaflets have been dropped on Mosul in an effort to warn residents about the potential danger.
“Keep calm and tell your children that it is only a game or thunder before the rain,” one leaflet read, according to Reuters. “Women should not scream or shout, to preserve the children’s spirit.”
“If you see an army unit, stay at least 25 meters away and avoid any sudden movements,” another leaflet added.
The battle could result in “one of the largest man-made disasters” in years.
On Sept. 29, Bruno Geddo, representative for the U.N.’s refugee agency in Iraq, warned that more than 1 million people could be displaced by the Iraqi-led battle to retake Mosul. This could result in “one of the largest man-made disasters” in years, he said.
“The first lesson is: It is too late when you receive funding when the crisis hits the television screens, which has normally been the pattern in the past in dealing with humanitarian crises,” Geddo said, reported the Associated Press. “We need funding to prepare in advance of the emergency.”
The U.N. repeated this warning on Twitter Saturday afternoon:
Refugee camps are being set up around Mosul for residents to escape to, but the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that these camps can accommodate just over 60,000 people currently, whereas some 200,000 may flee in the first days of the offensive.
IS won’t give up without a fight.
Getting citizens out of Mosul won’t be easy, as IS could use them as human shields against any attacks.
According to a Reuters report, the terrorists have also rigged the city with booby traps, wired its five bridges with explosives, and prepared car bombs and suicide attackers. On Monday, evidence of the latter emerged when a car packed with explosives was driven toward Iraqi forces marching on Mosul:
While residents in Mosul have been secretly communicating with the coalition to reveal details about IS battle plans, on Friday the terrorist group quashed a resistance force of 58 people, and executed them all publicly by drowning, according to an exclusive Reuters report. There have also been fears that IS may try to use mustard gas during the siege.
The U.S. has warned that this battle will not be won quickly. “This operation to regain control of Iraq’s second-largest city will likely continue for weeks, possibly longer,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling IS, said in a statement Monday.
Villages around Mosul have already fallen
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Monday that at 6 a.m. local time, a force of 4,000 Kurdish peshmerga troops on three fronts have begun to target villages on the outskirts of Mosul, with air support from the U.S.-led coalition.
And there have been early successes, with Turkey’s state-run news agency reporting they have taken control of seven villages east of the city and that they control the main road linking the city with the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, further to the east.
Rudaw, the Kurdish news agency embedded with the troops, reports that the peshmerga forces have “liberated all of the villages they were assigned to liberate on the first day of the Mosul offensive against IS.”
Elsewhere, CNN reports that airstrikes hit the al-Hurriya bridge in Mosul, though it’s unclear who was behind the attack. Amaq, the news agency affiliated with IS, blamed U.S. warplanes in a statement online.
What’s the long-term plan?
While some claim banishing IS from Mosul would be “mission complete,” there are worries that U.S. and Iraqi forces may not be able to maintain peace in the city if it is retaken. The NYT editorial board on Friday raised the specter of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, citing concerns over the post-battle plan:
“Despite months of planning by the United States, the Iraqi government and their partners, much could go wrong. A comprehensive post-battle arrangement for governing the city has yet to be worked out, meaning that even the best-executed military operation could unleash new tensions. It is also not clear whether the allies are prepared to handle the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of civilians who might flee the fighting.”
The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan suggested there may not be a coherent plan to maintain Mosul:
“Perhaps the biggest test for the U.S. strategy will follow the battle. While U.S. officials say a force of 45,000 police and tribal factions will secure the city, no clear plans for governing the historically diverse city have emerged. Whoever they are, Mosul’s new leaders will have to contend with the likelihood of residual militant attacks and the potential for renewed local conflict.”
The coalition’s plan is to surround the city of Mosul on all sides, slowly closing the circle. In doing so they will cut off supply routes and isolate the terrorist group. The final phase will see Iraqi commandos who have been trained by American Special Forces enter the city to take out the IS fighters, according to the New York Times. The operation is being live-streamed by several news organizations, and you can watch the developments unfold here.