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Gareth Browne

#MosulOp: Iraqis prepare major offensive to retake Christian towns

Iraq's elite Golden Division will be the first forces to storm Qaraqosh [Gareth Browne]

Date of publication: 19 October, 2016

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Iraqi forces are preparing for the biggest day of the Mosul operation, with at least four major offensives set to begin Thursday to retake a number of IS-held Christian towns.

Iraq is braced for the biggest day of the Mosul operation yet, with at least four major operations set to begin Thursday.

Peshmerga forces will launch operations to reclaim the Christian towns of Bashiqa and Teleskof, whilst also launching an operation from the north out of the Mosul dam.

A senior Peshmerga source told The New Arab he expects his fighters to liberate a further 39 villages on Thursday.

The town of Bashiqa has played neighbour to the one of the longest Kurdish frontlines for many months now, and many Peshmerga fighters are relishing the opportunity to liberate it.

Captain Nechirivan Kamiran, of the Zervany forces stationed at the nearby military base claimed that his men “had been frustrated that they had had to wait so long to liberate the town". He added that, “if Peshmerga forces aren't allowed to enter the city of Mosul, this could be one of their biggest battles"

Around 3,000 Iraqi army troops are expected to simultaneously attack the Christian town of Qaraqosh in what is expected to be the fiercest day of fighting since the operation began Monday.

Captain Kamiran Ismael Yid of the Iraqi army's 9th division said "so far IS' resistance has not been as great as feared, though that is expected to change tomorrow".

He added that they were "pulling back many of their fighters to inner Mosul, and allowing others to flee to Syria". The few that were left were being used primarily as suicide bombers.

[Click to enlarge]

It is believed that the battle for the Christian town of Qaraqosh will be the toughest yet, as it “is a large urban town that IS have retained since 2014 - not merely a mobile defence as was the case with many of the villages captured so far," according to Tom Wolstencroft, a senior analyst at Unity Resources Group.

Wolstencroft added that IS have had the time to set-up defences in the town.

Concerns over the presence of land mines and IED's are also high, as Wolestencroft says "the complexities of urban fighting - sniper fire, booby-trapped buildings and rigged infrastructure are likely to slow down Iraqi forces".

Fighters from Iraq's elite Golden Division, the country's notorious counter-terrorism unit, arrived at the outskirts of the town on Wednesday afternoon, in their jet black Humvees that are a fearsome sight for the Islamic State's ever dwindling foot soldiers.

They will be first into the city, using their urban warfare experience gleamed from previous battles in IS hotspots such as Fallujah and Ramadi to act as a strike force.

They will enter the town once Kurdish Peshmerga forces have finished clearing the surrounding villages.

Such towns, also present a new challenge in that their shifting ethnography away from the Sunni Arab populations to Iraq's minorities; groups such as Christians, Shabbaks, and Turkmans will be an extra challenge for some fighting units routinely criticised for sectarianism.

These challenges will only augment as forces approach the city of Mosul. Thursday may provide critical answers to those wondering whether or not Iraq's former ethnic diversity can be at all restored in a post-IS state.

Progress on Wednesday was not purely military, as residents returned to the Shabbak village of Sheikh Amir, just a few kilometres from IS frontlines and just days after it was liberated from the militant group.

Such quick repopulation is a critical part of the battle against IS, but it remains to be seen whether or not it can be replicated on a larger scale.

Gareth Browne is reporting from Bashiqa on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State group, just outside Mosul. Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

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