Iraqi Forces Prepare to Retake Key Areas in Mosul
Iraqi security forces members sit in a military vehicle near Falluja, Iraq. (Representative Image)
Qayyarah (Iraq): Iraqi forces prepared on Wednesday to retake several key areas around Mosul, including the country's largest Christian town, to tighten the noose on the Islamic State group's stronghold.
Kurdish and federal troops have made quick progress since the offensive was launched on Monday but officials have cautioned that Iraq's largest military operation in years could last months.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were still trapped in the city with dwindling supplies, many sheltering in basements as air strikes intensified on IS targets.
"We couldn't sleep last night because of the air strikes.
The explosions were huge but I'm not sure what the targets were," said Abu Saif, a 47-year-old resident contacted by AFP.
"Many families are starting to run out of some basic food goods, there is no commercial activity in Mosul -- the city is cut off from the world," he said.
East of Mosul, forces were poised for an assault on Qaraqosh, which lies about 15 kilometres and was once Iraq's largest Christian town.
News of the move to recapture Qaraqosh sparked jubilation among Christians who had fled the town, with many dancing and singing in the city of Arbil last night.
Units from Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service, which has done the heavy lifting in most recent operations against IS, were poised to flush jihadists out of the town on Wednesday, officers said.
"We are surrounding Hamdaniya now," Lieutenant General Riyadh Tawfiq, commander of Iraq's ground forces, told AFP at the main staging base of Qayyarah, referring to the district that includes Qaraqosh.
"There are some pockets (of resistance), some clashes, they send car bombs -- but it will not help them," he said.
Qaraqosh was the largest of many Christian towns and villages seized by the jihadists who swept across the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul in August 2014.
The mass exodus it sparked displaced a large proportion of Iraq's already dwindling Christian minority, sending most into the neighbouring Kurdish region.
Qaraqosh was home to around 50,000 people in 2014 and has at least seven churches, making it a key hub for the more than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq.
Kurdish peshmerga forces prepared to attack IS positions on several fronts north of Mosul while federal forces worked their way up the Tigris Valley.
Some families recovering their freedom from IS for the first time in more than two years cautiously approached security forces waving white flags.
In one village in the Al-Shura district south of Mosul, the men were promptly isolated and herded into a handful of buildings for screening.
The families were being dispatched to various temporary camps, including near Qayyarah.
The "caliphate" that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in Mosul's Great Mosque in June 2014 once covered more than a third of Iraq and parts of Syria.