An offensive to retake Mosul has forced thousands to flee their homes and a larger exodus may be imminent, the UN has warned. Iranians are set to join the fight amid fears they could trigger more sectarian violence.
Iraqi troops are meeting stiffer resistance from "Islamic State" (IS) fighters as they close in on the strategic city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
Iraqi forces approaching from the south and an elite army unit to the east of the city have slowed their advance. The battle to liberate Mosul began 10 days ago, and Iraqi army and federal police forces are currently 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Iraq's second largest city.
Other, more elite, units are closer to Mosul's outskirts.
"As Iraqi forces move closer to Mosul, we see that Daesh resistance is getting stronger," said Maj. Chris Parker, a coalition spokesman at the Qayyara airbase south of Mosul, using a local term for IS. The base serves as a hub for the military campaign.
The fighting ahead is expected to get more deadly as 1.5 million residents remain in the city. In a worst-case scenario, United Nations' forecasts said as many as 1 million people could be forced to flee their homes.
So far some 10,600 people have been forced to flee, according to UN aid agencies. Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said a major exodus may be imminent, perhaps within the next few days.
Grande added that there are also fears that IS fighters could resort to "rudimentary chemical weapons" to hold back the impending assault, which officials describe as a worst case scenario.
IS fighters are outnumbered
Iraqi forces handily outnumber the IS jihadis holed up in Mosul. As many as 6,000 militants are ready to fight against a core force of 30,000 Iraqi troops. The government forces are supported by another 10,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and another 10,000 police and volunteer fighters.
The United States has approximately 5,000 troops in Iraq. Few are deployed on the front lines, but more than 100 are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish forces advising commanders and helping to guide US-backed air power to strike military targets.
But the US also has growing concerns about developments in Raqqa, the Islamic State's Syrian base. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said during a press briefing that the US-led coalition wants to move quickly to isolate Raqqa because of growing concerns that IS militants are using the city as a base to plan and launch attacks against targets overseas.
"We think it's very important to get isolation in place around Raqqa to start controlling that environment on a pretty short timeline," Townsend said.
The attacking forces aligned against Mosul will increase further when Iranian-trained and backed Shiite militias join Iraqi forces.
The militias, known collectively as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization, vowed last week to help the army take back Tal Afar, an ethnic Turkmen city west of Mosul.
The participation of the Shiite militias, however, is raising concerns of potential sectarian violence with the majority Sunni population of the region.
Abdul Bassit, a refugee from one of the liberated villages said, "It was hell," referring to life under IS He said the extremists outlawed smoking and that violators could expect 70 lashes if caught. Cell phones were also forbidden, dress was strictly regulated, and women weren't allowed to leave the house.
bik/sms (Reuters, AFP)