Iraqi forces are “ahead of schedule” in an offensive aimed at retaking Mosul and dealing a death blow to the Islamic State group, but the battle will be difficult and protracted, the Pentagon has said.
The start of the long-awaited assault raised deep concerns for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Iraq’s second-largest city, with aid groups warning of a massive humanitarian crisis.
Some 30,000 federal forces are leading the offensive, backed by air and ground support from a 60-nation US-led coalition, in what is expected to be a long assault on IS`s last major Iraqi stronghold.
Iraqi forces readied weapons and ammunition as columns of armoured vehicles headed towards Mosul from the town of Al-Shura, some 45 kilometres (30 miles) south of the city.
The Pentagon said late Monday the operation had begun well but warned it would be a “difficult campaign that could take some time”. A top US general earlier said it would take several weeks or even longer.
“Early indications are that Iraqi forces have met their objectives so far, and that they are ahead of schedule for this first day,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had announced the beginning of the assault in a televised address earlier in the day.
“Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh (IS),” Abadi said.
IS seized control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in mid-2014, declaring a cross-border “caliphate” and committing widespread atrocities. The jihadists have suffered a string of territorial defeats this year in both countries, and the retaking of Mosul would all but end their presence in Iraq as a land-holding force.
Iraqi forces have been closing in on Mosul in recent weeks but the battle begun Monday could be the toughest yet against IS.
IS forces are vastly outnumbered, with the US military estimating 3,000 to 4,500 jihadists in and around Mosul.
But they have had months to prepare and will seek to use hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, snipers, bombs, berms and trenches to slow down and bleed Iraqi forces.
In an online statement after the assault began, IS claimed it launched a series of deadly suicide car bombings against Iraqi forces.
Early Monday, federal forces moved from their main staging base of Qayyarah, south of Mosul, as peshmerga forces from the autonomous Kurdish region advanced from the east.