Iraqi forces 'encircling Islamic State strongholds' as battle looms
Iraqi forces are preparing to advance on Mosul, the Islamic State's de-facto Iraqi capital, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday.
"We are in the process of surrounding Mosul to prepare for the battle, which will be tough," Le Drian said on his second day of an unannounced trip to Iraq.
US-led coalition fighter jets, including four from France, had recently struck IS command centres in Mosul, he added, just a day after confirming the 2016 deadline for the recapture of IS strongholds.
On Monday, the French Minister said Mosul and Raqqa, the de factor capital of IS territory in Syria, "must fall" this year.
Battles to recapture the strongholds are expected to be the most difficult in the war against IS, which holds swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq.
"Raqqa and Mosul must fall in 2016," Le Drian said, calling for making this "the year of a major turning point in our struggle against the so-called Islamic State."
His comments were seen to be the first given by a member of the US-led coalition which identified a timeframe for the cities' recapture.
Militants seized Syria's Raqqa in early 2014 while Iraq's Mosul fell during an IS offensive in June that year.
This year "must be the year of the beginning of the end for [IS]", Le Drian reiterated in his speech to Iraqi Special Forces and French troops, adding that despite the recent string of defeats over the militants, they remain a serious threat to the world.
"Because it's cornered, Daesh is more dangerous than ever," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
"Now that we have regained the upper hand, we must make the most of this dynamic with our partners," said Le Drian, referring to Iraqi and Kurdish forces that have battled the militants on the ground in Iraq with strong support by a US-led coalition.
He said the objective was to whittle down IS "resources, its leaders, its capacity for planning attacks on European soil".
Last month, 32 people were killed in Brussels when a European-based IS cell conducted an attack in the city's airport and a metro station.
A string of attacks in November last year also killed 130 people in Paris, with more feared set to take place across Europe.
Le Drian is in Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to discuss the war against the militants.