Iraqi Forces Say 20 Villages Fall In First Day Of Battle For Mosul

Armed forces closing in on Mosul said they had secured some 20 villages on the outskirts of the city in the first 24 hours of the operation.

The battle to retake what is Islamic State's last major stronghold in Iraq is full blaze on with air support from a U.S.-led coalition, government and Kurdish forces. The forces edged closer to the city as smoke darkened the blue sky above one IS position, apparently from oil fires ignited to hamper the incursion and make it harder to land air strikes.

Reuters reporters witnessed Islamic State mortar fire in villages on the plain east of the city as the militants sought to counter a push by Kurdish forces.

One car bomb exploded during the fighting, although it was not immediately clear if it had been detonated or hit by incoming fire.

Iraqi Forces

Iraqi Forces

With a population of 1.5 million, Mosul is the largest city under the control of the Islamic State group that seized swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, and its recapture would be a "decisive moment" in defeating the militants, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

But the urban battle ahead — in a city four to five times larger than other towns seized by Islamic State — poses not only a military challenge, but also a humanitarian one, with the United Nations warning of an exodus of up to a million people.

About 4,000 to 8,000 militants are thought to be dug into Mosul while the forces assembled to drive them out are estimated at 30,000, including Iraqi army, Kurdish and Sunni tribal fighters.

Around  900 people have fled Mosul and crossed the border into Syria.

The numbers are expected to increase and likely to create the biggest and most complex humanitarian crisis in the world this year.

The U.N. refugee agency said it had built five camps to house 45,000 people and plans to have an additional six in the coming weeks with a capacity for 120,000, that would still not be enough to cope if the exodus is as big as feared.

The battle has also raised fears of sectarian and ethnic revenge killings in territory retaken from the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim Islamic State.

Amnesty International urged Iraqi authorities to keep Shi'ite paramilitary groups away from Mosul, whose population is largely Sunni.

The rights group said the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad would bear responsibility for the actions of the militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are officially considered to be part of the country's armed forces.

"There can be no justification for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture or arbitrary detention," said Amnesty's Philip Luther.

Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Stringer 

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