Peshmerga clears out Isil fighters as battle rages
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces stormed an Isil-held town northeast of Mosul yesterday, trying to clear a pocket of militants outside the city while Iraqi troops wage a fierce urban war with the jihadists in its eastern neighbourhoods.
As the operation against Isil's Iraqi stronghold entered its fourth week, fighters across the border launched an offensive in the Syrian half of the jihadist group's self-declared caliphate, targeting its base in the city of Raqqa.
An alliance of US-backed Kurdish and Arab groups launched the campaign for Raqqa, where Isil has been dug in for nearly three years, with an assault on territory about 50km to the north, which they have dubbed 'Euphrates Anger'.
The battle for Raqqa will be every bit as challenging as the one for Mosul, with both cities carrying huge strategic and symbolic value to the jihadists and their self-declared caliphate.
The Iraqi operation, involving a 100,000-strong alliance of troops, security forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shi'ite militias, backed by US-led air strikes and a global consensus against the jihadis, has so far gained just a small foothold in Mosul.
The Raqqa campaign, launched amid a complex civil war in Syria which has divided world powers, is not coordinated with President Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian army. The Kurdish element of SDF groups fighting towards Raqqa also makes them an unlikely force to recapture the Arab city.
"It is difficult to put a time frame on the operation at present. The battle will not be easy," a Syrian Kurdish source said.
In Bashiqa, some 15km from Mosul, the first waves of a 2,000-strong peshmerga force entered the town on foot and in armoured vehicles or Humvees.
Artillery earlier pounded the town, which lies on the Nineveh plains at the foot of a mountain.
"Our aim is to take control and clear out all the Daesh (Isil) militants," Lieutenant-Colonel Safeen Rasoul said. "Our estimates are there are about 100 still left and 10 suicide cars."
Isil fighters have sought to slow the offensive on Mosul with waves of suicide car bomb attacks. Iraqi commanders say there have been 100 on the eastern front and 140 in the south.
A top Kurdish official said the jihadists had also deployed drones strapped with explosives, long-range artillery shells filled with chlorine gas and mustard gas and trained snipers.
As a peshmerga column moved into Bashiqa yesterday, a loud explosion rocked the convoy, and two large plumes of white smoke could be seen just 15m away. A peshmerga officer said two suicide car bombs had tried to hit the advancing force.