Iraqi forces launch battle to liberate Mosul from ISIL

The United Nations has voiced fears the vastly outnumbered militants could use them as human shields as ISIL seeks to repel the assault on its last major stronghold in the country.

Iraqi forces deploy in the area of Al Shourah, some 45km south of Mosul, as they advance towards the city to retake it from ISIL on October 17, 2016. Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced earlier in the day that the long-awaited operation to recapture Mosul was under way. Ahmad Al Rubaye/AFP
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ERBIL // Iraqi forces have launched a campaign to retake Mosul, the self-declared capital of ISIL, the prime minister said on Monday.

Up to 1.5 million civilians remain in the city, the United Nations said, voicing fears the vastly outnumbered militants could use them as human shields as they seek to repel the assault on its last major stronghold in the country.

“Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh,” prime minister Haider Al Abadi said in a televised address.

Mosul fell to ISIL fighters two years ago as they marched through Iraq and Syria, where the civil war left a power vacuum that was easily exploited.

Its recapture would shatter the group’s claim to be running a “caliphate” and would all but end its presence in Iraq as a landholding force.

Broadcasts showed the prime minister, dressed in the uniform of the elite counterterrorism forces, speaking while flanked by senior military officers.

“God willing, we shall win,” he told the city’s residents.

The thuds of sporadic artillery shelling rumbled across the rolling Nineveh plains in the direction of Mosul, witnesses said. State TV broadcast patriotic music within minutes of the announcement.

In Washington, defence secretary Ash Carter called the start of Iraqi operations to liberate Mosul “a decisive moment in the campaign” to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL.

He said the United States and other members of the international coalition “stand ready to support the Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga fighters and the people of Iraq in the difficult fight ahead”.

The push to retake Mosul will be the biggest military operation in Iraq since American troops left in 2011.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press