Iraqi forces launch offensive to drive IS from Mosul

HAMAM AL-ALIL, Iraq — U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched a major air-and-ground offensive Sunday to retake western Mosul from Islamic State militants and drive the extremist group from its last major urban bastion in Iraq.

Ground units pushed into a belt of villages outside the country’s second-largest city, and plumes of smoke rose into the sky early in the morning as U.S.-led coalition jets struck militant positions southwest of Mosul and militarized Iraqi police fired artillery.

“This is zero hour and we are going to end this war, God willing,” said Mahmoud Mansour, a police officer, as he prepared to move out.

The United Nations warned that hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside their homes in Mosul “are at extreme risk,” with dwindling fuel, food and water and scarce electricity.

Iraq declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” last month after three months of fierce fighting, but the militants have continued to stage attacks there, including two suicide bombings against government forces Sunday.

The battle for western Mosul promises to be even more daunting, as the half of the city west of the Tigris River has older, narrower streets and is still heavily populated.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the latest operation on state TV. Using the Arabic acronym for IS, he said government forces were moving to “liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression and terrorism forever.”

Police units quickly entered the village of Athba, about 3 miles southwest of Mosul’s international airport, encountering only light resistance. Separately, the Iraqi Army’s 9th Division moved into the village of Bakhira, also southwest of the city, the Ministry of Defense said.

The U.S.-led coalition has been providing close air support throughout the 4-month-old Mosul offensive and carried out nine airstrikes against IS near Mosul Saturday, Central Command said. U.S. special operations forces are embedded with some Iraqi units, and thousands of American soldiers are in Iraq to provide logistical and other support.

“We are very close to it, if not already engaged in that fight,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters in Abu Dhabi. He declined to go into further detail, saying he owed “confidentiality” to the troops.

Citing witnesses in western Mosul, the United Nations said nearly half of all food shops were closed and bakeries had shut down for lack of fuel and an inability to purchase costly flour. Prices of kerosene and cooking gas have skyrocketed, and many of the most destitute families are burning wood, furniture, plastic or garbage for cooking and heating.

The humanitarian agencies were gearing up to aid 250,000 to 400,000 civilians who may flee because of the fighting, the statement said.