Iraqi forces lined up for opening a second front on Saturday in preparation for an assault on ISIS-stronghold, Mosul. The offensive comes a day later to government troops declaring victory over the terrorists in Fallujah.
Elite counter-terrorism forces and two army divisions, backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes, advanced from a northern refinery town towards an airfield strategically considered a key for retaking Mosul, security officials said. Mosul is Iraq’s largest northern city and ISIS’s de facto capital in the country.
Government troops cleared two villages and pressed around 20 kilometers along a desert route west of Baiji, the first advance past the town since its recapture in October, the security officials said.
Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi said the assault marked the launch of operations pushing ISIS out of Qayara, about 115 km north of Baiji, where an airfield could serve as the staging ground for a future offensive on Mosul, a further 60 km north.
Army troops on a separate front pushing west from Makhmour for the past three months have made only halting progress on the opposite side of the Tigris river. “The launch of operations to liberate Qayara will not give the terrorists a chance to catch their breath,” Obaidi said on Twitter alongside a picture of Humvee military trucks snaking down a desert road.
Iraqi forces entered the center of Fallujah, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, on Friday morning after a four-week operation that sent its tens of thousands of residents fleeing to overwhelmed displacement camps nearby.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had declared victory over ISIS extremists by evening, but police sources said on Saturday that government troops had not yet entered seven northern districts captured by the terrorist organization and were still clearing southern areas.
Counter-terrorism forces took control of Fallujah hospital, and were clearing the eastern al-Dhubat neighborhood, a military statement said.