Erbil, Iraq // The Iraqi army on Sunday launched a renewed offensive to cross the Tigris and get within striking distance of ISIL-held Mosul, opening another front against the embattled extremist group.
The Mosul offensive near the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour came as Iraqi forces were fighting to retake Fallujah in the south, and as US-backed militias and regime forces were closing in on Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital in Syria.
It was launched almost exactly two years after ISIL stunned the world by seizing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and quickly showed that the Iraqi army still struggles to fight the terror group effectively even with extensive western support.
The immediate aim of the operation will be to take the village of Hajj Ali on the northern bank of the Tigris, before crossing the river to take control of Qayyarah, about 60 kilometres south of Mosul.
The town and an adjacent airstrip have been designated as a key staging post for the campaign to flush ISIL out of the city. The assault on Mosul itself is still some way off, regardless of the outcome of the current operation.
Iraqi army units and allied Sunni militia groups attempted to reach Qayyarah in March but fell short of their objective, managing only to take a handful of villages and failing to reach the Tigris.
The units at Makhmour have since been beefed up with a tank division, and equipped with a pontoon bridge to ford the river.
This has not prevented another inauspicious start to the current operation, according to sources with the peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces that share a frontline with the Iraqi army at Makhmour. Only the village of Kharaib Jabr was taken on the first day, they said.
The operation will resume on Monday with an attack on Hajj Ali, the sources said, adding that US special forces are likely to assist the Iraqis in breaching ISIL defences and crossing the river.
By focusing on crossing the Tigris at Hajj Ali, the army has narrowed its attack.
In March, Iraqi security forces launched a two-pronged assault on ISIL positions straddling the northern bank of the Tigris.
While making some headway on the plains towards Hajj Ali, the army’s advance was immediately halted by ISIL resistance further upstream, and it was unable to take the village of Nasr that lies on a low ridge running parallel to the river.
Iraqi forces advancing on Sunday were supported by coalition warplanes and US artillery stationed at Makhmour, officers involved in the operation said. In the preceding days, the US-led coalition hit ISIL positions in Hajj Ali and Qayyarah with air strikes and artillery fire, according to security reports seen by The National.
The push at Makhmour further turns the screw on ISIL in Iraq.
Its fighters have been surrounded in Fallujah, and a fierce battle now rages for control of the city west of Iraq’s capital Baghdad.
In spite of a torrent of suicide car bombers, heavily mined urban areas and stiff resistance by extremists determined to fight to the end, Iraqi special forces are slowly gaining ground in the city.
The elite counterterrorism force known as the Golden Division had entered two neighbourhoods in Fallujah’s south, and was about three kiometres from the city centre.
A limited offensive by the peshmerga at Khazir near the Kurdish capital Erbil last month wrested several villages from ISIL, bringing the Kurds a step closer to expelling the group from the areas north of Mosul.
The two-day operation was backed by coalition air support and well-equipped US special forces, exposing ISIL’s weakness in fighting a technologically superior foe in open terrain.
ISIL is under pressure in Syria too. A coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has encircled the northern town of Manbij, cutting off ISIL’s corridor to Turkey, which has in the past been a source of fighters and equipment. Almost 200 ISIL fighters have been killed in the battle for the town, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Kurdish-led SDF has pledged to take Raqqa, and it too is supported by coalition air strikes and US and European special forces.
It might have its work cut out.
From the west, Syrian regime troops backed by Russian air power are advancing on the ISIL stronghold. They are swiftly closing in on the Tabqa air base in Raqqa province and are just 40 kilometres from the city itself.