Iraqi PM announces start of military offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced late Sunday the start of a military offensive to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city, from the Islamic State group.

State TV showed a brief written statement announcing the start of the widely anticipated military offensive to drive the terror group out of the northern city.

Mosul fell to the Islamic State group in June of 2014, when the extremist group blitzed across northern and western Iraq, overrunning nearly a third of the country and plunging Iraq into its most critical political and security crisis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. 

“Godspeed to the heroic Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Ninewa volunteers,” Brett McGurk, US Envoy to the coalition against ISIS, said in a tweet. “We are proud to stand with you in this historic operation.”

The push to retake Mosul will be the biggest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011 and, if successful, the strongest blow yet to ISIS.

So far in the fight against ISIS, the most recent string of territorial victories for Iraqi ground forces have been in the country’s west. 

Iraqi forces retook the city of Ramadi in late 2015, followed by a number of towns and villages along the Euphrates River valley and then Fallujah in June. 

The victories allowed Iraqi forces to weaken the group by cutting supply lines used to ferry fighters and supplies between territory held in Syria and Iraq.

In preparation for the fight for Mosul, Iraqi forces began moving into Nineveh province to surround the city in July, when ground troops led by the country’s elite special forces retook Qayara air base south of the city. Iraqi troops are also being deployed east of Mosulin the Khazer area, along with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and to the north of the city near the MosulDam and Bashiqa areas.

In addition to the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Iraqi special forces and Sunni tribal fighters, Shiite militia forces are also expected to play a role in the Mosul operation.

The role of the Shiite militias has been particularly sensitive, as Nineveh is a majority Sunni province and Shiite militia forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against civilians in other operations in majority Sunni parts of Iraq.

A very small number of Turkish troops deployed for over a year in Iraqi territory at a base north of Mosul have caused a recent spike in tensions between Iraq and Turkey.

Iraq has repeatedly called for the Turkish forces to withdraw, claiming they entered the country without the permission of the central government. It’s unclear if they intend to play a role in the operation to retake Mosul; Turkey’s president has said they cannot be excluded. Shiite militia fighters have said they are violating Iraqi sovereignty and have vowed to expel them.

Iraq’s special forces have said the fight to retake Mosul will largely be launched from the north and east. The Kurdish peshmerga forces say they will push ISIS out of a cluster of mostly Christian and Yazidi villages northeast of Mosul along the Nineveh plain, while Iraqi military troops try to cut the main supply line northwest of Mosul that links ISIS territory in Iraq to its strongholds in Syria.

A large number of Iraqi military forces are also expected to push up from Qayara air base.

Once villages around Mosul have been cleared of ISIS fighters, Iraq’s special forces — also called the counterterrorism forces — are expected to lead the push into the city of Mosul itself.

The special forces were trained for more than a decade by the United States and are now some of Iraq’s most competent ground forces.

Those forces have led the ground assault in a number of battles against ISIS in the past, including the operations to retake Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and the Beiji oil refinery.

Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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