Iraqi forces ready for ‘zero hour’ in assault on Mosul

KHAZIR, IRAQ — The countdown to Iraq’s long-touted offensive for the northern city of Mosul is almost over, Iraqi commanders said Sunday, as their forces readied for an assault on the city.

The first stage of the offensive, closing in on the city on several fronts, could start as early as Monday, they said. Dozens of ambulances were lined up at checkpoints on the edges of Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan on Sunday, ready to ferry out casualties. Thousands of Iraqi troops have moved into position for the battle in recent weeks, as new military staging areas have sprung up along front lines.

At one, in a hamlet near Khazir, east of Mosul, Maj. Salam Jassim, a commander with Iraq’s elite special forces, and his men were waiting for the order for “zero hour.” In houses emptied by fighting, soldiers entertained themselves with cards and dominos. Battle plans were drawn out in black marker on walls and plastic tables.

The Mosul offensive is the biggest yet against the militants, a showdown in their last major stronghold in Iraq and the city that has come to symbolize the group’s rise here. It was in Mosul’s Great Mosque that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his self-proclaimed caliphate more than two years ago.

But since then the group’s grip has slowly crumbled. Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah have been clawed back by Iraqi forces, albeit with heavy reliance on U.S.-led airstrikes.

It’s only a matter of time before Mosul is recaptured too, Iraqi commanders say.

“We’ll take it,” Jassim said, sipping on a can of Tiger Energy drink — a favorite of Iraqi forces. “There’s no doubt.”

Troops have massed to the north, south and east of the city in recent weeks.

Trucks packed with Iraqi soldiers and military vehicles have clogged the roads as forces have moved into place. Tanks, armored vehicles and weaponry have been hauled nearly 250 miles from the capital, Baghdad.

For the first 48 hours, the offensive on the eastern front will be led by Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, Iraqi military officers said.

“Then they will stop,” said Brig. Gen. Haider Obaidi, another commander with Iraq’s special forces. “We’ll start after them, and move after them to support them.”

Federal police and Iraqi army units will move up the main highway from Baghdad, while Shiite militia forces are expected to focus on Tal Afar to the west and the town of Hawija to the southeast. Kurdish peshmerga forces, Sunni fighters, and the Iraqi army will also attack from the north.

Opinions are split on just how long and grinding the battle will be. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to have the city back under Iraqi government control by the end of the year.

But Jassim is not sure that’s possible, with booby traps and explosive devices slowing the way.

Civilians too, will complicate the battle. Between 1.2 million and 1.8 million are still inside, he said.

To avoid a humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government has asked civilians to stay in their homes, complicating air support and clearing operations.

“The operation will take much longer because of this,” Obaidi said. “For their safety, but it also means each neighborhood needs to be surrounded and searched as we clear it.”

Still, the U.S.-led coalition will give closer support than in any other operation, he said, with Apache helicopters likely to be used. On Sunday night preparatory airstrikes rattled windows in the special forces base near Khazir.

The coalition has requested the airspace be cleared of Iraqi jets, whose air support will be limited to areas where Shiite militias are onthe ground, Obaidi said.

“All the sky will be for the coalition,” he added. The western side of the city will be left largely open, which may make for a less protracted fight inside than if it was besieged. “We’ll try to give them an escape to run to Syria,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, said that even if the western side is left open, it doesn’t mean a safe escape. “If we do that then this area will become a killing zone as we target them with our aircraft,” he said.

For the soldiers, for the moment, it’s a waiting game.

Mohammed al-Kabouli, a 30-year-old special forces soldier, complained as he sat in the shade of a black Humvee.

“The hardest thing is the waiting,” he said. “Our job is to advance, not to do nothing. Their aren’t even any good houses here,” he said of the village where the troops had temporarily commandeered homes long stripped bare by looters, down to every door. “Men don’t die in bed,” a solider had graffitied on one wall.

Mustafa Salim contributed from Khazir.

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