Iraqi military launches offensive on west Mosul

Iraqi Prime Minister announces army offensive to retain ISIL’s last major urban territory in Iraq

Iraqi government forces captured several villages on Sunday, as they advanced on their offensive to liberate the western part of the city that is still under control of Islamic State, Iraqi military said.

Iraqi police and interior ministry forces were expected to start the new phase in their offensive to take control of the entire city by moving on Mosul airport, located on the southern edge of the city, to the west of the Tigris river.

“We announce the start of a new phase in the operation. We are coming to Nineveh to liberate the western side of Mosul,” Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in on television. “Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh [ISIL].”

The Islamic State militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after U.S.-backed forces surrounding the city forced them from the east in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month.

The Iraqi air force had on Saturday dropped leaflets on the west of the city, warning that a ground attack to push ISIL fighters out was imminent.

"Get ready to welcome the sons of your armed forces and to cooperate with them, as your brothers on the left side have done, in order to reduce losses and speed up the conclusion [of the battle]," read one leaflet.

Other leaflets warned ISIL fighters to "lay down their weapons and surrender".

Government forces retook the eastern side of the city, the last major IS stronghold in Iraq, last month. But military officials say the western side, with its narrow, winding streets, may prove a bigger challenge.

"West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale," Patrick Skinner, from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy, told the AFP news agency.

The streets around the historic centre, which includes the mosque in which ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in June 2014, will be impassable for many military vehicles and force government fighters to take on ISIL in perilous dismounted warfare.

The UN has voiced concern about civilians trapped there, amid reports that they could number up to 650,000. Leaflets warning residents of an imminent offensive were earlier dropped over the west of the city.

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US-led coalition forces, said in a statement on Sunday: "Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world."

The defence ministry announced last month that ISIL had been almost completely pushed out of the eastern side of the city, which is divided by the Tigris. It later retracted that statement and fighting continues in some parts of the east.

Aid organisations had feared an exodus of unprecedented proportions before the start of the fighting, which began four months ago with a government push on the east, but a significant majority of residents stayed home.

Residents of the west bank have reported difficult living conditions and warned that they were already low on food, with weeks or months of fighting expected to lie ahead.