US-backed Iraqi ground troops, following on the heels of the army’s counter-terrorism unit, launched what it expects to be the final assault on the city of Mosul, the last major stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq, on Monday.
Iraqi forces, along with Kurdish Peshmerga allies, have been converging on the city, believed to hold between 4,000 and 5,000 ISIS fighters, with another 1,500-2,000 defending its outskirts, for two weeks. The opposition forces have managed to advance despite ISIS’ attempts to deter its enemies with artillery and a barrier of deadly car bombs.
The radical Islamic group has also set oil fields ablaze to cover their movements and, as another defensive measure, seized thousands of civilians from villages surrounding Mosul to use as human shields, Reuters reported.
While ISIS steadily gained ground in Iraq and Syria from 2013 through the beginning of 2015, its territory rapidly began to shrink after encountering resistance from Iraqi forces and a US-led military coalition. While it held 40 percent of Iraq at its peak, it now holds only 10 percent.
Mosul is ISIS’ most significant asset in Iraq, and its fall would mean a huge blow to the contracting caliphate. Military officials estimate the final battle over Mosul could last weeks, possibly months.
The United Nations predicted that one million people would be uprooted by the fighting, with about 17,500 already having fled.
While Iraqi forces will target the left bank of the city, cut in half by the Tigris River, an army of Shiite militias is preparing to take Mosul’s right bank. Recruiting efforts to the militias are still underway, with thousands of fighters gathering to join up for the last defense of Iraq.
The US-led coalition against ISIS is providing air and ground support to the Iraqi advance.
Iraqi forces have already liberated some surrounding towns, including Qaraqosh, where the Church of the Immaculate Conception was burned and ravaged by ISIS. On Sunday, in an act of spiritual defiance to a terror group which would create a world-wide caliphate under Sha’aria law, a group of Iraqi Christians gathered at the destroyed church for its first mass since Mosul was first captured two years ago.