ERBIL, Iraq — Iraq’s government announced the beginning of an offensive on Sunday to take back the western half of Mosul from the Islamic State, nearly three years after the city was overrun by the terror group.
Overnight, planes crisscrossed the sky over the city’s occupied half, carpeting the ground with leaflets, which made a direct appeal to fighters with the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to lay down their weapons.
“To those of you who were intrigued by the ISIS ideology,” said one of the leaflets. “This is your last opportunity to quit your work with ISIS and to leave those foreigners who are in your homeland. Stay at home, raising the white flags as the forces approach.”
On state-run television, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq announced the beginning of the offensive, describing it as “a new dawn” and calling on his troops “to move bravely forward to liberate what is left of the city.”
The push to free Mosul, a city with an estimated population of 1 million, began last October, with local troops pushing from the east into the city’s geographically larger, but more sparsely populated, eastern half. In late January, they reached the banks of the Tigris River, which bisects Mosul, and declared the city’s eastern section liberated.
The operation took longer than expected and cost countless lives, but much of the city’s infrastructure was preserved, and daily life has already returned. That is in contrast to the operations to take back other cities from ISIS, including Ramadi and Sinjar, which were laid waste by airstrikes. More than a year since it was freed, not even the mayor of Sinjar has been able to return.
The fight for Mosul’s western half could be even more protracted than for its east. The west is home to neighborhoods of narrow streets, some so small that it will not be possible for Iraqi troops to enter them in their fortified Humvees. That means troops will need to enter on foot, making them even more vulnerable to suicide attacks, which were one of the main modes of combat used by ISIS in the battle for the east.
Reached by telephone, residents in western Mosul described the elation they felt at the approach of government troops. “All we have left to eat is tomato paste. We are eating it with salt,” said 41-year-old Umm Anwar, who asked to be identified only by her nickname. “We are ready to kill ISIS ourselves with knives, or by biting them, because we are in so much pain.”