Iraq initiated offensive operations this Sunday to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, preparing to advance on the western part of the city. Even with U.S. as allies, it proves to be a tough fight.

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on state-run television channel the beginning of the offensive he described as “a new dawn.” The Prime Minister called on his troops to move bravely to retake what was left of Mosul, once the country’s second-largest city.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Image Credit: Hadi Mizban/AP

The city woke up Sunday morning to streets covered by flyers that appealed to those on ISIS fighting lines to surrender.

“To those of you who were intrigued by the ISIS ideology, this is your last opportunity to quit your work with ISIS and to leave those foreigners who are in your homeland. Stay at home, raising the white flags as the forces approach,” read one of the leaflets the planes dropped overnight, the New York Times wrote.

The assault to take control back from ISIS was planned amidst concerns for the lives of people who remained in the western part of the city. The overall initiative to free Mosul began back in October when local forces started pushing from the east part of the city. Although larger in territory, the east is the more sparsely populated half.

By late January, the troops declared liberation on eastern Mosul as they reached the banks of the Tigris River that separate the city into two.

The October operation on the east took longer than was expected, leaving a high toll on Iraqi citizens and their fighting numbers. However, much of Mosul’s infrastructures was preserved, and people were able to regain a sense of daily life.

On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of residents of the western half found themselves trapped and scarce in resources like food, water, and cooking combustible. Civilians continued to fall victim to ISIS’s increased harassment in the days leading up to the proclaimed attack.

The fight for West Mosul could be even more prolonged than the one for its eastern neighbor. That part of town consists of narrow streets, some very smalls to fit the troops’ armored Humvees. This characteristic was a decisive factor in the success of the signature suicide bomb attacks plotted by ISIS during recent years.

All of the five bridges that used to go over the Tigris were bombed and destroyed. Because they couldn’t cross the river, the troops had to trace a surrounding path to approach the city from the south.

Officials had informed the first objective was Mosul International Airport in the south. By midday this Sunday, Iraqi officers reported having successfully captured a group of nearby villages, advancing withing six miles of the airport field.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted that American officials would continue in the same role and under the same rules of engagement than when they supported the operations for East Mosul. Mattis assured the American-backed coalition would persevere in their effort to destroy the terrorist group, pointing out that the forces were probably engaging in the fight as he gave his statement.

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the U.S. aid against ISIS, spoke from the United States Central Command to convey how the Iraqi forces have risen to the challenge in the fight for Mosul. Around 450 American advisers are helping Iraqi officers plan and execute the offensive strategy.

Methods employed by ISIS to resist the offensive

Anticipating the offensive, the Islamic State damaged the Mosul Airport by carving trenches onto the runways and adjacent taxiways and aprons. According to an analysis of satellite imagery done by a global intelligence company called Stratfor, no paved portion of the airport was left in good conditions.

Taking the airport would be considered a milestone for the offensive plan, regardless of its destruction, and so would be securing high ground at the adjacent hilltop village of Abu Saif which favors ISIS’s heavy use of snipers. By Sunday afternoon, Iraqi troops were reaching the base of the hill.

The troop’s actions will be further complicated by the vast network of tunnels hatched by ISIS that allows their fighters to hide from overhead surveillance.

One Iraqi man from eastern Mosul, Yahya Salah, recalled how the ISIS forced their way into his home armed with a jackhammer, locked him and his family in a bedroom and started drilling a hole in the middle of the living room floor. When the Iraqi Army arrived to rescue the family three days later, the terrorists had slipped away into the tunnel they had dug dozens of yards deep, leaving behind the piles of dirt and the frightened family.

“They worked without stopping — when one got tired, another took over, and they dug a hole that was 1.5 meters wide. When we said we were thirsty, they threw water bottles at us,” Mr. Salah commented for the New York Times.

Reports of similar tunnels have surfaced all over the eastern part of the city. Officials expected the same to be true for the western half. Pictures published by ISIS showed how their soldiers lived inside the tunnels, which can be big enough to fit five men standing side by side.

The Islamic State has also been adopting the use of armed drones to spot their opponent troops’ positions and target them remotely. The small devices are available off-the-shelf in malls across the region. The terrorist group is becoming better every time, even developing their drone program.

Iraqi Army men described how they often spotted the drones flying over them and not more than 30 minutes passed when they started taking incoming fire at that given location.

Source: The New York Times