Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went on state television early Monday to announce that the crucial battle to end Islamic State’s ruinous reign of terror in Mosul and western Iraq had finally begun.
“Today I declare the start of these victorious operations to free you from the violence and terrorism of Daesh,” al-Abadi said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
Before the prime minister told Iraqis that “God willing, we will win,” two Canadian generals who are privy to the battle plans said they were convinced the end of the hardline jihadists in Iraq was inevitable and fast approaching.
The long anticipated assault on Iraq’s second largest city, where 2.2-million people lived when ISIL seized it two years ago, was likely to be bloody and could take some time, Brig.-General Greg Smith and Brig.-Gen Dave Anderson, who both served multiple tours in Afghanistan, said during interviews from Baghdad.
“Let there be no doubt, Mosul is a very big city and they have been working on its defences,” said Smith, who is the chief of staff of the U.S.-led Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command. “We are agreed that it is going to be a very tough, complex fight.”
“It really depends on the enemy,” said Anderson, who heads the coalition’s strategic advisory team, which works closely with Iraq’s security ministries. “One way to look at it is that there is a hard outer crust. It depends how soft and squishy the middle is. Getting through the crust will be hard. Once inside the crust we will see whether they stand and fight to the last man or run away as they did in Ramadi and Fallujah.
“I think that they are on their back foot, I really do. The pressure has been relentless and it has been like that for six to eight months. Some of them have picked up sticks and been seen in Syria. The reports we are getting is that the morale in Mosul is quite fragile. We will see how it works. The war has a pace and rhythm all of its own. The enemy always gets a vote.”
ISIL revels in celebrating many diabolical acts including the sexual enslavement of women its captures. It has produced a seemingly endless stream of ghastly videos which depict prisoners being drowned, beheaded, thrown from buildings and set fire to in cages.
For Anderson one of the many reasons ISIL had to be eliminated was its “appalling” treatment of children as suicide bombers and its “craven willingness to hide among the civilian population inside the city or when they try to flee…
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“There are bad cats in Mosul and we have every confidence that the Iraqi security forces will be there to deal with them.”
It was just over two years ago that the Iraqi army fled Mosul rather than defend it, as ISIL swept in from the west. Smith and Anderson, who were sent to Iraq earlier this year along with about 30 other Canadians to assist the Iraqi army with its training and development, lauded the ISF’s leadership for turning that pathetic situation around and for its methodical approach to regaining territory from ISIL along the Euphrates and Tigris River valleys.
The Iraqi forces were “completely different” today than they were two years ago, Anderson said. Their confidence had been “born of success” over “the last 14 or 15 months and certainly the last three months.”
“If they had morale problems in 2014 as Daesh pushed them out, they are working hard to push them back,” Smith said, referring to ISIL by its Arabic acronym. “They are very motivated. They are the ones driving the timeline.
|AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty ImagesIraqi forces gesture as they gather at the Qayyarah military base, about 60 kilometres south of Mosul, on Sunday.|
The ISF counter-offensive has reached as far west on the Euphretes as Haditha, which is about 100 kilometres from the Syrian border. Further north, in the Tigris Valley, they have forced ISIL out of Ramadi and Fallujah and are now within 40 kilometres of the southern and east outskirts of Mosul while the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have Canadian military advisers, are about 15 kilometres to the north of the city.
“There is still a ways to go to the Syrian border but it was gone exceptionally well,” Smith said. “They are effectively in the process of isolating ISIL (around Mosul) now. Daesh remains a formidable foe but they are transitioning more into a terrorist force which means they are losing. It is pretty much all going against them.”
To wear down ISIL before what could be a ferocious street-by-street fight for Mosul, allied warplanes have accelerated their bombing campaign using “critical” targeting information provided by RCAF spy planes and a Canadian intelligence cell based in Kuwait, the generals said. There have also been constant artillery barrages on ISIL forces by US Marines and French gunners.
After Mosul falls, Anderson, who is to remain in Baghdad until next summer, will help advise the Iraqis about how to consolidate their territorial gains while continuing to move against ISIL-held pockets in towns and rural areas in the west of the country.
“The upcoming battle is taking a lot of the bandwidth of everyone, but all the right indications and all the right discussions are there to ensure that we – that is, the Iraqi security forces – can not only take Mosul but hold it afterwards,” Anderson said.
As for life today in ISIL’s so-called Iraqi capital, “by all accounts it is horrific,” Anderson said. “There is a complete absence of personal freedom. In many cases people are being pressganged in order to man the lines. One of the reasons that the ISF is unified is that Daesh is evil and really needs to be destroyed and those people liberated from its influence.”