Kirkuk: Iraqi forces renewed their offensive against ISIS around the second largest city of Mosul on Saturday after driving the terrorists out of most of Fallujah, said Iraqi defence ministry.
Mosul is the last major urban centre in Iraq still under ISIS control after Iraqi forces raised the national flag over government headquarters in the heart of Fallujah on Friday.
Iraqi commanders announced the launch of an offensive to retake Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province in March but under domestic political pressure, the government diverted its forces to Fallujah, just west of Baghdad, last month.
“We started at 5am the second phase of the liberation of Nineveh,” Defence Minister Khalid Al Obaidi told AFP.
“The target of the operation is to take Qayyarah and make it a launch pad for Mosul,” Obaidi said.
Qayyarah, which has an airfield, lies across the Tigris River from the main base for pro-government forces in the Kurdish-controlled area of Makhmur.
It is some 60 kilometres south of Mosul.
The offensive, which has been repeatedly pushed by Washington, has support from US-led forces, notably in the shape of a US Marine artillery post outside Makhmur.
On Friday, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi promised that the liberation of Mosul was “very near” as he declared victory in the four-week offensive to retake Fallujah.
Al Abadi said that only small pockets of ISIS resistance remained to be cleared from the terrorists’ emblematic bastion.
But ISIS still firmly controls northern neighbourhoods of Fallujah where it is believed to be holding thousands of civilians as human shields.
Bombings in Syria
Meanwhile, ISIS has launched a wave of suicide and car bombings to defend a besieged stronghold in northern Syria against US-backed fighters, a monitor said on Saturday.
A Kurdish-Arab alliance last week encircled the city of Manbij and severed a key supply route used by ISIS from the Turkish border to the terrorists’ de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa.
But since then, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by US air strikes, have been slowed by almost daily suicide bombings by ISIS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On Friday, ISIS carried out two suicide attacks and five car bombings in the southwestern suburbs of Manbij, according to the British-based monitor, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.
The number of casualties was unknown.
The operation has also been complicated by the presence of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the city, although more than 1,000 have managed to escape with the help of the SDF.
“On Friday, six members of the same family were killed when they were targeted by jihadists while fleeing,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said.
The SDF commanders have accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields.
Southeast of Manbij, regime forces backed by Russian air strikes have also faced Daesh counter-attacks after advancing towards another jihadist bastion, Tabqa.
The town lies around 50 kilometres west of Raqqa city, and recapturing it would cut a key supply route. The army is now reported to be 15 kilometres away from Tabqa’s military airport.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 280,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of antigovernment demonstrations.
It has evolved into a multi-sided civil war involving a range of combatants including Western- and Gulf-backed rebels, jihadists, Kurds and pro-regime forces supported by Russia and Iran.