iStock/Thinkstock(MOSUL, Iraq) — A Kurdish military commander overseeing forces in Iraq, Peshmerga Brigadier General Sirwan Barzani, says it could take two more weeks for advancing troops to reach the city limits, and a further two months to liberate the city from ISIS. He also cautioned that bad weather could prolong the battle even further by hampering coalition airstrikes and aerial reconnaissance devices.
The Iraqi army estimates there are still between 5,000 and 6,000 ISIS troops still defending Mosul, with the possibility of a bloody street-to-street battle with numerous booby traps and IEDs to contend with.
A Shi’ite paramilitary force said it would support the Iraqi army’s offensive on Mosul, raising the risk of sectarian strife in the mainly Sunni region. The Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained militias, said late on Tuesday it would back Iraqi government forces advancing toward Tal Afar, about 34 miles west of Mosul, which would effectively cut off the escape route for militants heading to Syria, but it could also hamper the escape of civilians.
As day three of the battle got underway, combined Iraqi and Peshmerga forces continue to make their way east across the Ninevah Plain, advancing slowly, village by village from the northern side of the city.
To the south, regular Iraqi army troops and Shia militias also advanced steadily but slowly, hampered by numerous roadside bombs, booby traps, car bomb attacks and other IEDs. They have encountered stiff resistance by ISIS fighters in certain places as they concentrate on the Hamdaniyah district to the southeast of Mosul.
According to the citizen journalists group Sound and Picture, ISIS hung 20 decapitated heads at the Mosul gate in a gesture they describe as “blood propaganda,” or a warning for soldiers or citizens not to enter or leave the city.
The blog Mosul Eye, which reports on troop deployments inside the city, said that ISIS had suddenly redeployed its forces throughout the city, specifically bolstering the western bank of the Tigris River.
Some 900 people have fled the Iraqi city of Mosul and crossed the border into Syria, the U.N. refugee agency says. This is the first large group of civilians confirmed to have escaped since the Iraqi government began its offensive to liberate Mosul on Monday. Up to 1.5 million are thought to be in Mosul and there are fears the militants will use the civilians as human shields as Iraqi forces get closer to Mosul.
Meanwhile, the aid group Save the Children says thousands of Iraqis are fleeing to Syria in order to escape the fighting around the city. They said Wednesday that 5,000 people have arrived at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria from the Mosul area in the last 10 days, with 1,000 more waiting to enter at the border.
The group says the camp was ill-equipped to receive the refugees, saying it is “littered with waste and feces, with a looming risk of outbreaks of disease.” It says there are just 16 latrines shared by more than 9,000 people, many of whom only have access to dirty, untreated water. Tarik Kadir, head of Save the Children’s response to the Mosul crisis, says that “conditions there are among the worst we’ve seen, and we expect thousands more people to be on their way soon.”
The outcome of the battle is expected to be felt beyond the region as well. Europe is bracing for a wave of returning jihadists if ISIS is driven out of its Iraqi stronghold. Security Commissioner Julian King said even a small number of militants would pose “a serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for.”
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