“My expectation is two months for the fight inside Mosul, but weather is one of the factors that can delay the process,” Sirwan Barzani, a Peshmerga brigadier general, said Tuesday.
He said it would likely take two weeks for the advancing forces to enter the city. But he added that Iraq’s leaders have said that only Iraqi government troops and national police officers will be allowed to do so, amid fears of sectarian retribution.
A diverse 94,000-member coalition comprised of Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga allies and thousands of irregulars from various minorities are involved in the operation to free Mosul from more than two years of ISIS rule.
• Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim walks back an earlier claim that Turkish warplanes took part in air operations in Mosul with the US-led coalition.
• One Iraqi soldier killed Tuesday while repelling ISIS suicide car bombs attack on government troops about 30 miles southeast of Mosul. Ten ISIS fighters were killed.
Advancing forces encountered some fierce resistance from pockets of ISIS fighters on their approach to Mosul. On Tuesday, one Iraqi soldier was killed and two were wounded while repelling suicide car bomb attacks southeast of the city. But morale was high among the troops.
“Next stop, Mosul,” said Sgt. Muhanned Hameed, a technician in the 9th Iraqi armored division, flashing a victory sign in front of his convoy.
Others were more reflective. One mechanic in the division told CNN’s Arwa Damon that while he was excited about reaching Mosul, “God help those who had to flee.”
“It always hurts to see the children’s clothing on the ground, thrown around. Sometimes we try to pick it up, put it away. I keep imagining, what if it was my house?”
Progress had been swifter than expected on the first day of the operation, as forces advanced on the oil-rich northern city under air support from roughly 90 coalition and Iraqi planes, retaking more than 75 square miles of territory and wresting nine villages from ISIS control.
Forces east of Mosul also secured control over a significant stretch of the Irbil-Mosul road, a key strategic route, the General Command of Peshmerga Forces of Kurdistan Region said, while Iraq’s military declared that it had inflicted “heavy losses of life and equipment” on ISIS to the southeast.
For now, the fighting has been restricted to the villages on the city’s outskirts. But the going is expected to be tougher once the coalition reaches Mosul’s urban center.
The coalition greatly outnumbers its opponents, but ISIS, which has long known the push was coming, has constructed elaborate defenses, including a network of tunnels. Coalition forces will also likely face suicide bombs, car bombs and booby traps.
Up to 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, according to an estimate from a US military official, but the terror group’s supporters put the number at 7,000.
Did Turkish planes take part?
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Tuesday walked back a claim he made earlier in the day that the Turkish air force had taken part in air operations in Mosul with the US-led coalition.
Initially, Yildirim told a meeting of the ruling AKP in parliament in Ankara that “our forces took part in air operations together with coalition forces,” and that “this is an answer to those who said ‘Turkey has no place in Mosul.'”
Later, when a reporter commented that it sounded like Yildirim said Turkish planes were participating, Yildirim answered, “they will be when needed,” and that “there is an agreement in principle that they take part in (the) coalition,” the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
When asked again whether Turkish planes had taken part, Yildirim said: “I do not know the details of the operation,” Anadolu reported.
Iraq’s government objects to the presence of the troops, which it says are there without its permission, while Turkey is concerned the operation will fuel sectarian violence in the city. The soldiers are there to train Kurdish and Arab fighters as part of an agreement between Ankara and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the same meeting Tuesday that his government had told the United States that “Turkey will be at the table, Turkey will be on the field too.”
Leaflets dropped: ‘Victory is visible’
Iraqi planes dropped more than 17 million leaflets over Mosul and 15 other areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq on Monday, calling on ISIS members and supporters to surrender.
One leaflet read: “To whoever Daesh has manipulated to join their side, drop your weapons immediately. There is no other way to survive without doing so. The march has begun and victory is visible.”
The second addressed “all Iraqis who have been implicated by Daesh.” It added: “For those who seek mercy or pardon. He has to capture an Arab or foreign Daesh person and bring him to the Iraqi force as a ransom on himself.”
Why Mosul is so significant
The largest city under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria, it was the city from which the group first declared the establishment of its so-called caliphate.
Since then, ISIS has gradually lost its other Iraqi cities — Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja — to government forces, with the government’s eye ultimately on recapturing the country’s second city of Mosul, once a cosmopolitan trade hub of 2 million residents. Today, about 1 million are estimated to remain.
One of the challenges for the liberating forces will be avoiding revenge attacks on the city’s inhabitants from people whose families had suffered under ISIS.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Hamdi Alkhshali, Arwa Damon and Ben Wedeman reported from near Mosul; Euan McKirdy reported and wrote from Hong Kong and Tim Hume wrote from London. Kristie Lu Stout, Isil Sariyuce, Max Blau and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this story.