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US-Backed Iraqi Troops Launch Battle For West Mosul

Fear of humanitarian crisis

Iraqi troops, backed by US forces, launched a ground battle to retake western Mosul from Islamic State (IS) in a campaign that is expected to be complicated and extended, but will mean a significant loss to Islamic State as it will be forced to give up on its territorial ambitions in Iraq.

In a briefed televised speech on state TV, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation, saying the government forces were moving to “liberate the people of Mosul from Daesh oppression and terrorism forever,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Al-Abadi called on security forces to deal with civilians properly and respect human rights.

The battle for Mosul is expected to be complicated because of the estimated 750,000 civilians in the city, as well as the fact that IS is well entrenched in the city.

Eastern Mosul was retaken from IS by Iraqi forces last month after a 100-day battle, but the west of the city remains in the hands of IS. Unlike the east, much of the west is composed of old houses forming narrow alleyways, making the use of armored vehicles more difficult and promising a tougher fight.

It is difficult to assess the situation in western Mosul as independent media do not have access to the part of the city that is under Islamic State control. As the battle gets under way, there is concern for the humanitarian situation in eastern Mosul. The United Nations said it was rushing to build more shelters ahead of an expected wave of displacement.

“We are racing against the clock to prepare emergency sites south of Mosul to receive displaced families,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told The Media Line. “The humanitarian operation is already stretched. We are trying to reach more than six million people across Iraq who need help. We don’t have all of the funding we need and many partners are facing major capacity constraints.”

She said stocks of fuel, food and water were running low, and that shelves in shops have been emptied of most goods by anyone in western Mosul who has money.

The situation is distressing. People, right now, are in trouble,” Lise Grande, said in a statement. “We are hearing reports of parents struggling to feed their children and heat their homes.”

The US also said that nearly half of all food shops were closed and bakeries had shut down due to a lack of fuel and the fact that bakers cannot afford to buy flour. Prices of kerosene and cooking gas have increased dramatically, and many of the poorest families are burning wood, furniture, plastic or garbage for cooking and heating.

Beyond the humanitarian concerns, there is fear that the coalition that is working to defeat ISIS could fall apart, as different groups have competing interests. The largest group, which is comprised of an estimated 54,000 Iraqi security forces, is trying to capture the airport first. The US is providing these troops with air support.

In 2014, when Islamic State took over Mosul, thousands of Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms and fled, rather than stay and fight. There is some concern this could happen again.

“The Iraqi troops are improved from 2014 when they fell apart, but they are not capable of handling this fight on their own,” Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow with Defense Priorities, a new think-tank in Washington, DC, and a retired army colonel, told The Media Line. “A Kurdish general I spoke to recently said he would not be surprised if these troops run away again.”

The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, key US allies, make up the second-largest fighting force with about 40,000 members. They are trying to reach Mosul from the east of the city. Also involved are thousands of soldiers from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), a group of paramilitary organizations that officially operate under the command of the Iraqi government.

Most of the members of the PMU are Shi’ite fighters, some with ties to Iran. There are also a number of units with Sunni and Christian fighters. The Iraqi government has said that these militias are not allowed to enter the center of Mosul and has limited their fighting to the outskirts of the city.