The future of Syria and Iraq will be shaped significantly by the outcome of the battle of Mosul that is now underway.
Fighting has entered the third day as coalition forces focused efforts on the district of Hamdaniya as they march towards Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city and the last major ISIL stronghold in the country.
Explosives and booby traps laid down by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group), also known as ISIS, slowed down the Iraqi offensive in recent days, despite air support from the US-led coalition.
ISIL snipers posed danger to Iraqi forces trying to advance towards Mosul as the coalition air strikes pounded Hamdaniya.
The Iraqi army said that it had to destroy five cars being driven by ISIL suicide bombers during their advance.
“The Iraqi army, not the Peshmerga, are trying to advance into [Hamdaniya]. They tried to storm the area yesterday, but were forced to retreat,” Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Khazir near the frontline, said.
“What we saw on the first day of the offensive – with Peshmerga forces taking the lead, clearing ground, and taking villages – that was easy, even though ISIL put up a fight,” she said. “It was easy because [those areas] were depopulated. Hamdaniya is more difficult. It is a built-up area with civilians inside.
“If [the Iraqi forces] take over Hamdaniya, they will be at the gates of Mosul itself,” she added.
Before ISIL’s takeover in 2014, Hamdaniya’s population stood at 50,000. Although most civilians fled at the time, a few thousand people are believed to reside in the district.
Although reports have suggested the use of human shields by ISIL, Khodr said that it was impossible to independently verify these reports given that communication with these towns and cities has been cut off.
The Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul began on the first day with the taking of nine villages, mostly by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
But Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, also reporting from Khazir, said that since then the armed forces’ advance was “not as formidable” as the first day.
Iraqi commanders maintain that progress continues to be made as their forces push from two main fronts, namely, the south, where government troops are moving up towards Mosul, and the east and north, from where their Kurdish allies are advancing.
Late on Tuesday, the Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained militias, said it would back Iraqi government forces advancing toward Tal Afar, about 55km west of Mosul.
Taking Tal Afar would effectively cut off the escape route for fighters wanting to head into neighbouring Syria, but it could also hamper the escape of civilians from the area of Mosul, a Sunni-majority city.
ISIL forces are believed to be vastly outnumbered, with the US military calculating up to 4,500 fighters in and around Mosul, compared with an estimated 30,000 Iraqi army troops, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Sunni tribal forces.
Iraqi forces have significant ground to cover before reaching the boundaries of the city, which ISIL is defending with berms, bombs and burning oil trenches.
The US-led coalition said air strikes destroyed 52 targets on the first day of the operation.
“Early indications are that Iraqi forces have met their objectives so far, and that they are ahead of schedule for this first day,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said.
Most of the coalition’s support has come in the shape of air strikes and training, but US, British and French special forces are also on the ground to advise local troops.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and the United Nations fears that up to a million people could be forced from their homes by the fighting, with 700,000 of them in need of shelter.
“We don’t know where [the civilians] are going,” Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan reported, also from Khazir.
“We know people have fled from these villages [recently won by Peshmerga forces] and wound up in IDP camps, but we’ve heard very little about the people who are still stuck – there are some 1.2 million people still in [Mosul]. Where they go once this fighting intensifies remains a very big issue.”