A ground offensive has been launched - backed by US airstrikes - to recapture Iraq's second-largest city, now under control of the "Islamic State." The city of 2 million fell to IS in 2014.
The Iraqi military announced Thursday that its forces have opened an offensive against IS and had already pushed the militants out of several villages on the outskirts of Makhmour, east of Mosul.
"The first phase of the Fatah (Conquest) Operation has been launched at dawn to liberate Nineveh, raising the Iraqi flag in several villages," the military statement said on Iraqi state TV.
Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said the US-led anti-IS coalition is providing air cover to Iraqi ground forces in a long-awaited plan that's been discussed openly for months.
"Since the early hours of the operation, Iraqi troops were able to liberate a number of villages and raise the Iraqi flag there," Rasool told state television al-Iraqiya without elaborating.
City held by IS since 2014
It's not clear how long the operation could take.
Mosul lies 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad and is the country's second-largest city. It fell to IS in June 2014 and is the largest city in the extremist group's self-declared caliphate.
In December, the Iraqi government regained the western city of Ramadi, marking the first major setback for the al Qaeda breakaway group in months.
Kurds supporting Baghdad troops
Peshmerga fighters from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region have also been heavily involved in the campaign against IS in northern Iraq.
The peshmerga deputy commander for the sector, Araz Mirkhan, told the AFP news agency that the offensive had started.
"Iraq forces in Makhmour have begun their advance towards Qayyarah to the south of Mosul," he said, referring to the town on the Tigris River to the west of Makhmour. "The advance has allowed us to liberate four or five villages from the Daesh terrorists," he added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
US military skeptical of Iraqi success
In this June 16, 2014 file photo, demonstrators chant pro-"Islamic State" slogans in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul.
The Iraqi military's offensive comes only a few days after the US announced that it had set up a small Marine artillery outpost in northern Iraq to protect an Iraqi military base in Makhmour - the likely staging ground for a Mosul assault, located 67 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of the city.
Despite Baghdad's announcement, the number of Iraqi troops needed to carry out the operation to retake Mosul may not be sufficient.
US military leaders have said that the Iraqi government is facing political pressure to show victory.
Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, told US lawmakers last month that he is "not as optimistic" as Iraqi leaders are of a military victory.
Coalition and Iraqi officials estimate that 24,000 to 36,000 troops would be needed for the Mosul operation. Yet only 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi troops have been deployed at Makhmour base.
jar/jil (AP, Reuters, dpa)