US-backed Iraqi forces launch assault on Islamic State’s last strongholds in western Mosul

Iraqi forces, backed by heavy US-led air and artillery strikes, have launched a new offensive against the last strongholds of the Islamic State in the city.

The operation, announced by Iraq’s Joint Operations Command on Saturday, comes after Iraqi troops cleared most western parts of Mosul, leaving a small pocket of Islamic State fighters scattered in a handful of neighborhoods along the west bank of the Tigris.

The attack began at dawn and involved several Iraqi units attacking across a broad front in an effort to overwhelm Islamic State defences.

After nearly eight months of fighting, Iraqi forces appear poised to retake what was once the Islamic State’s largest stronghold in Iraq and the birthplace of its caliphate. The fighting, especially in the west of the city, was fierce, leaving Iraqi forces with thousands of casualties. Civilians were also caught in the crossfire, leaving hundreds of thousands displaced and thousands dead.

Even though Islamic State now only controls about five square miles of the city, Iraqi and US commanders have warned that the worst fighting is yet to come.

From his small patrol base north of the city, US Army Capt. Devan Zimmerman said the US-led coalition had already delivered a significant number of airstrikes and artillery on Saturday morning.

Yet with such a small part of the city still held by the militants and so many Iraqi forces attacking at the same time, Zimmerman said, it will be difficult to muster and coordinate US-led aircraft over the town.

“It’s not going to be quick,” said Zimmerman, who helps advise a brigade from Iraq’s 9th Division.

Despite early potential gains, Iraqi forces suffered casualties. Late Saturday, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command issued a statement that two colonels from the army’s 16th Division were killed in the fighting.

In addition to militants still present in parts of the city, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians remain trapped in their homes, creating the potential for a humanitarian disaster if they are not safely evacuated.

On Friday, Iraqi forces dropped thousands of leaflets on west Mosul, prompting those at home to flee. The move is a stark departure from past instructions which primarily told civilians to stay put until the fighting was over. Aid groups have warned the Iraqi government, saying its forces must ensure escape routes are secured before civilians leave.

Checkpoints outside the city on Saturday saw an increase in the number of civilians trying to exit the city. The United Nations has estimated that around 200,000 civilians remain in the neighborhoods occupied by the Islamic State and that 10,000 have started to leave every day.

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