Iraqi officials said on Thursday that the military had launched the campaign to retake Mosul from the Islamic State.
In a military communique broadcast on public TV, army commanders said they had started the first phase of Operation Fatah to liberate Mosul in the northern province of Nineveh.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to more than a million civilians from multiple ethnicities, was seized by Islamic State fighters in June 2014 amid a rout of Iraqi military forces.
The communique said that Iraqi forces set out from their Makhmour base, 60 km south of Mosul, and moved westward recapturing a number of villages.
The base is shared with US and Kurdish peshmerga forces; it came under repeated Islamic State rocket attack last week. One US soldier was killed and several others wounded.
The first phase comprises capturing the town of Qayyara, which lies along the Tigris river and serves as a strategic point bridging Mosul to areas further south already controlled by the Islamic State.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has pledged to kick ISIL out of Iraq by the end of the year – with the Mosul campaign a critical step toward that goal.
But US commanders working with the Iraqi military have cautioned that an attack on Mosul this year would be unlikely as the army currently has far too few resources to ensure victory.
Washington has also warned Baghdad not to use Iranian-backed Shia militias – also known as hashd shaabi – in retaking Mosul.
The Iraqi government heavily relied on these militias when retaking Tikrit last year. Human rights organizations and local residents in Tikrit at the time reported looting and public executions of men suspected of belong to ISIL.
The Shia militias were used to a lesser degree in the liberation of Anbar capital Ramadi in December.
The final assault on Mosul would likely involve greater use of Kurdish peshmerga forces and local Sunni tribesmen who are being trained by Turkish and other Coalition forces.
According to Iraqi intelligence officials, ISIL forces have redeployed around Mosul with some withdrawing from towns they could no longer hold.
Iraqi commanders said they expect local residents in and around Mosul to turn on ISIL as the offensive approaches.
In the meantime, US-led Coalition air raids have been hitting Islamic State positions in Mosul, often causing civilian casualties.
An air strike last week partially destroyed Mosul University.
The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies