IS fighters 'shave beards' as pressure builds on Mosul
Fighters with the Islamic State group (IS) were shaving their beards and changing hideouts in Mosul, residents said, as a major Iraqi offensive moved ever closer to the city on Wednesday.
"I saw some Daesh members and they looked completely different from the last time I saw them," eastern Mosul resident Abu Saif said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
"They had trimmed their beards and changed their clothes," the former businessman said.
"They must be scared... they are also probably preparing to escape the city."
Residents and military officials said many IS fighters had relocated within Mosul, moving from the east to their traditional bastions on the western bank of the Tigris river, closer to escape routes to Syria.
The sounds of fighting on the northern and eastern fronts of the Mosul offensive could now be heard inside the city, residents said, and US-led coalition aircraft were flying lower over it than usual.
Backed by air and ground support from a US-led 60-nation international coalition, as well as Kurdish Peshmerga forces and tribal militias, tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters have been advancing on Mosul from the south, east and north after an offensive was launched on 17 October to retake the last major Iraqi city under IS control.
Iraqi federal forces have taken a string of towns and villages in a cautious but steady advance over the past week in the face of shelling, sniper fire and suicide car bombings.
About 3,000 to 5,000 IS fighters are believed to be inside Mosul, Iraq's second city, alongside more than a million trapped civilians.
Next stop: Raqqa
With pressure building on the 10th day of the Mosul assault, Western defence chiefs were already looking ahead to the next target - IS's other major stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, where extremists fleeing Mosul are expected to head.
Both US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and British counterpart Michael Fallon said on Wednesday they expected an offensive on Raqqa to be launched within weeks.
"It starts in the next few weeks," Carter told NBC News before arriving in Brussels for a two-day meeting of NATO defence chiefs.
"That has long been our plan and we will be capable of resourcing both," Carter said.
If Mosul falls, Raqqa will remain as the only major city in either Syria or Iraq under IS control, the vestige of a cross-border "caliphate" the extremists declared after seizing large parts of both countries in mid-2014.
An offensive against Raqqa is likely to be far more complicated than the assault on Mosul however, because unlike in Iraq the coalition does not have a strong ally on the ground in Syria.
|I saw some Daesh members and they looked completely different from the last time I saw them.
- Mosul resident
In response to Carter's announcement, a senior military official cautioned that conducting major operations in Raqqa and Mosul at the same time would stretch the coalition, adding that the Raqqa campaign should wait until the Iraqis have made more significant progress in Mosul, where resistance from the militants has been described as heavy.
The senior military official told The Associated Press that if the Mosul and Raqqa operations were done now, the biggest strains would be on fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft.
The coalition should be able to start the Raqqa operation in the near future, the official said, but declined to give a more precise timeline.
Syria's five-year civil war has left the country in chaos, with extremists, US-backed rebels, Syrian Kurds and President Bashar al-Assad's forces all engaged on multiple fronts.