KHAZIR, Iraq—After months of preparation, the long-awaited battle for Mosul began in the early hours of Monday when Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops surged across the plains of northern Iraq toward the stronghold of the so-called Islamic State.
The timing of the offensive, determined by the Iraqi government based on logistical, tactical, and domestic political imperatives, could have an explosive effect on the U.S. elections. Combat is likely to drag on well beyond Nov. 8, when the Americans vote, so the potential for a victory that might benefit the candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is low, while the potential for military setbacks, humanitarian disasters, and terrorist counterstrikes that could be exploited by the campaign of businessman Donald Trump is high. But in any case the die is cast.
Supported by American and other coalition airstrikes, the Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers made use of the first light of day to advance in a multipronged attack on the thinly stretched ISIS defenses. American advisers and special-operations forces are also known to be in close contact with the advancing troops, although they are not supposed to take a direct role in combat.
Iraqi army units headed for Mosul from Qayyarah, the key staging post where some U.S. personnel are deployed south of the Tigris River. The Iraqi army is also advancing from Gwer (or Kuwayr) a small town on the north bank of a Tigris tributary. A little further north still, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters began their assault on the villages along the road to Mosul at the Khazir front line.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took to the airwaves to announce the start of the campaign.
“The hour of victory has come, the operation to liberate Mosul has started,” Abadi said in a televised address, flanked by officers and wearing the black uniform of Iraq’s special forces that are expected to spearhead the thrust into the city.
“God willing we will meet in Mosul to celebrate the liberation and your salvation from Daesh so we can live together once again, all religions united and together. We shall defeat Daesh to rebuild this dear city of Mosul,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The campaign is intended to put an end to the terror group as an occupying force in Iraq. Hemmed into Mosul and the pocket of Hawija to the southeast, the militants have been losing ground for over a year now, and are a far cry from the seemingly invincible fighters that took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest metropolis, with fewer than a thousand men in June 2014.
Early indications are that the offensive got off to a good start.
By 9 a.m. local time, the Peshmerga had taken Kabarli, one of three villages they had attacked at dawn. After a brief fight in which ISIS sent a truck bomb toward the advancing Peshmerga, which was duly dispatched by the Kurds before reaching its target, the ISIS fighters withdrew.
According to commanders on the ground, the Peshmerga are looking to move toward Qaraqosh (also called Bakhdida), an abandoned Christian town about 15 kilometers from Mosul’s outskirts.
Prior to the ground assault, relentless attacks from the air had ground down the defenders. Directed by Western special-operations forces on the ground, jet aircraft and helicopters pounded ISIS positions remorselessly, launching rockets, dropping bombs, and spraying cannon fire at ISIS positions.
In the coming days, further lines of attack will be opened, aimed at collapsing ISIS’s entire northern front, while the Iraqi army continues its advance from Qayyarah south of the river.
The fighting is the culmination of a heavy troop buildup around Mosul in the preceding weeks. Unit after unit had rolled in from Baghdad and Tikrit, complementing the Peshmerga forces that had been holding the front against ISIS over the past two years.
Even on the eve of battle, tanks and armored vehicles were still being ferried to the front at Khazir. Strapped on the back of heavy trucks, the war machines where greeted by cheering civilians lining the road as they drove through the town of Kalak. A little further up the road, a long convoy of ambulances made their way to the front line.
A few days earlier, The Daily Beast witnessed a heavily armed Iraq special-operations forces unit pulling into the town of Makhmour on the way to Khazir. Known as the Golden Division, these black-clad fighters are the pride of Iraq’s military after scoring a series of decisive victories againt ISIS.
After two years of fighting the insurgents in cities such as Ramadi, Hit, and Fallujah, these men are experts at urban warfare, and are itching to finish off the job in Mosul.
“We have been fighting everywhere,” said Samar, a Golden Division soldier whose unit had last seen action in Fallujah. “We like it.”
With their trademark black Humvees, MRAPs (mine resistant ambush protected vehicles), and state-of-the-art U.S. assault rifles, the American-trained soldiers moved toward their staging posts with menace and swagger, unperturbed by the fanatical defense ISIS is expected to put up in the city.
According to reports from inside Mosul, the insurgents have dug an extensive network of tunnels, allowing them to channel men and material out of sight of the coalition aircraft preying above. They have filled deep trenches with crude oil they can torch, and littered houses and roads with explosive traps.
Several thousand jihadis are expected to remain in the city, together with over a million civilians. Aid agencies fear that the local population will be used as human shields by ISIS, but are also acutely aware that they lack the means to deal with a mass exodus from the city.
“I am extremely concerned for the safety of up to 1.5 million people living in Mosul who may be impacted by military operations to retake the city from ISIL [ISIS],” Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said in a statement released Oct. 17. “Funding has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario.”
The military has been instructed to persuade civilians to stay in their houses during the fighting. If that fails, the army will establish safe routes out of the city, a tough task while the battle rages.
People fleeing in greater numbers will quickly lead to a humanitarian crisis, aid agencies warn. Only about 60,000 people can be sheltered in emergency sites and existing camps before additional capacity is added, while up to 200,000 civilians may try to escape in the first few days, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“We fear the humanitarian consequences of this operation will be massive,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, the NRC’s Iraq country director.
—With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey.