IRBIL, IRAQ —
Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. coalition airstrikes and Apache attack helicopters, began moving Wednesday toward the crucial al Qayyarah airfield south of Mosul.
Known as a “super-base,” the airfield has two major runways and previously was capable of handling fighter jets, helicopters and large U.S. transport planes. It lies just west of the Tigris river and of advancing Iraqi forces.
“It is like the U.S. fight for Baghdad in 2003,” said one Iraqi commander speaking on the phone through a translator. “There are jet fighters in the sky, and below them are helicopters and on land we have ground forces with M1A1 tanks,” the commander said on condition that he remain anonymous. “This is the way it is going right now,” he said on Thursday.
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces advance their positions in Fallujah, June 22, 2016. Pockets of Islamic State fighters continue to hold neighborhoods along the north and west of the city.
U.S. coalition has been hammering IS targets in the area with airstrikes almost daily since June 1. On Wednesday, four strikes hit an IS tactical unit, destroyed an IS assembly area and eight IS boats. On Tuesday, six strikes near Qayyarah destroyed IS bunkers, tunnel entrances, two mortar systems and six boats.
According to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, photographs released by Iraq’s Ministry of Defense last week showed OshKosh M-All Terrain Vehicles armed with heavy machine guns, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and M1A1 Abrams tanks advancing towards al Qayyarah. Iraq’s 9th Armored Division and brigades of the U.S.-trained 15th Infantry Division are moving in from Makhmour, from where Iraqi forces started their offensive towards Mosul in March.
Mosul is the country's second largest city and IS's "capital" in Iraq.
U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk met with Kurdish Regional President Masoud Marzani and Iraq’s National Security Advisor Faleh al Fayyad on Sunday to lay the ground for taking the city. McGurk said on his Twitter feed that the meeting aimed at preparing the political-military plan for Mosul’s “full liberation.”
Kurdish commanders have insisted a political agreement on how the city will be taken and how it will be controlled afterwards is essential to a successful military operation. There are concerns that a heavy Shi’ite militia presence in the operation could aggravate the sectarian divisions exploited by IS in Iraq. Iraqi security forces have been boosted by Shi’ite militia in other offensives, including in Fallujah.
Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe, with as many as 600,000 people displaced if the offensive is not undertaken carefully.
Capturing al Qayyarah would give U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces a pivotal airbase from where to launch a large offensive against Mosul, the last IS stronghold in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces have already moved in from the east to just 20 kilometers of the city, and more peshmerga forces are deployed north of Mosul.