By Ahmed Rasheed and Michael Georgy
BAGHDAD/ERBIL (Reuters) – Residents of Mosul said Islamic State was using civilians as human shields as Iraqi and Kurdish forces captured outlying villages in their advance on the jihadists’ stronghold.
The leader of Islamic State was reported to be among thousands of hardline militants still in the city, suggesting the group would go to great lengths to repel the coalition.
With attacking forces still between 20 and 50 km (12-30 miles) away, residents reached by telephone said more than 100 families had started moving from southern and eastern suburbs most exposed to the offensive to more central parts of the city.
Islamic State militants were preventing people fleeing Mosul, they said, and one said they directed some toward buildings they had recently used themselves.
“It’s quite clear Daesh (Islamic State) has started to use civilians as human shields by allowing families to stay in buildings likely to be targeted by air strikes,” said Abu Mahir, who lives near the city’s university.
Like other residents contacted in the city, he refused to give his full name, but Abdul Rahman Waggaa, a member of the exiled Provincial Council of Nineveh of which Mosul is the capital, corroborated his account to Reuters.
Around 1.5 million people still live in Mosul and the International Organization for Migration said Islamic State may use tens of thousands of residents as human shields to hold onto their last city stronghold in Iraq.
The IOM said there was a likelihood of chemical attacks by the jihadists, who had used such weapons previously against Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said safe routes had been secured for civilians who wanted to leave Mosul. Syria meanwhile accused the U.S.-led coalition of planning to allow Islamic State militants to flee across the border into Syria.
The fall of Mosul would signal the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni jihadists in Iraq but could also lead to land grabs and sectarian bloodletting between groups which fought one another after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the campaign is a calculated risk. He is hoping to bolster his legacy by seizing back as much territory as he can from Islamic State before he leaves office in January.
The Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces from autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan began moving towards the city at dawn on Monday under air cover from a U.S.-led coalition set up after Islamic State swept into Iraq from Syria in 2014.
Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior Kurdish official, said initial operations succeeded due to close cooperation between the Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, allowing them to clear Islamic State from 9 or 10 villages east of Mosul.
“Daesh is disoriented they don’t know whether to expect attacks from the east or west or north,” he told Reuters.
On Tuesday the attacking forces entered another phase, Zebari said. “It won’t be a spectacular attack on Mosul itself. It will be very cautious. It is a high-risk operation for everybody.”
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and explosives expert Fawzi Ali Nouimeh were both in the city, according to what Zebari described as “solid” intelligence reports.
A total of 20 villages were taken from the militants east, south and southeast of Mosul by early Tuesday, according to statements from the two forces, fighting alongside one another for the first time.
Islamic State said on Monday its fighters had targeted the attacking forces with 10 suicide bombs and that their foes had surrounded five villages but not taken them. None of the reports could be independently verified.
RESIDENTS KEPT IN CITY
Abadi announced the offensive on Monday around two years after Iraq’s second-largest city fell to the militants, who exploited the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011 to seize territory there.
The operation had been planned since July with U.S. and other coalition forces and Western and Iraqi officials, mindful of the civil war that followed Saddam’s fall, say plans for administering the mainly Sunni city and accommodating those who flee the fighting are in place.
The United Nations has said up to a million people could flee the city and that it expected the first big wave in five or six days, indicating fighting would reach the city then.
But some residents said Islamic State was making sure people did not leave. One, who gave his name as Anwar, said he fled the Sumer district near Mosul airport, fearing ground forces and aerial bombing.
“I told Daesh fighters at a checkpoint ‘I’m going to stay at my sister’s house’,” he said. “A Daesh fighter made calls through his radio to make sure I was not lying and only after the voice on the other side said ‘Let him go’, did I let myself breathe.”
Fighting is expected to take weeks, if not months, as 30,000 government forces, Sunni tribal fighters and Kurdish Peshmerga first encircle the city then attempt to oust between 4,000 and 8,000 Islamic State militants.
More than 5,000 U.S. soldiers are also deployed in support missions, as are troops from France, Britain, Canada and other Western nations.
The Iraqi army is attacking Mosul on the southern and southeastern fronts, while the Peshmerga carried out their operation to the east and are also deployed north and northwest.
The Kurdish forces said they secured “a significant stretch” of the 80 km (50 mile) road between Erbil, their capital, and Mosul, about an hour’s drive to the west.
Coalition warplanes attacked 17 Islamic State positions in support of the Peshmerga operation in the heavily mined area, the Kurdish statement said, adding that at least four car bombs were destroyed.
There was no indication of the number of military or civilian casualties in the Iraqi or Kurdish statements.
France said it would co-host a multilateral meeting with Iraq on Oct. 20 to discuss how to stabilize Mosul and its surroundings once Islamic State has been defeated.
Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the militants were likely to retreat to their Syrian bastion Raqqa, so it was vital to consider how to retake that city too.
“We can’t let Islamic State reconstitute itself or strengthen to create an even more dangerous hub,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in ERBIL, Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin in BAGHDAD, Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA, Warren Strobel, Yara Bayoumy and Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON; writing by Philippa Fletcher and Giles Elgood, editing by Peter Millership)
Photo: Iraqi security forces advance in Qayara, south of Mosul, to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer