Iraq launches offensive to recapture Mosul from Islamic State

"West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more hard, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale", said Patrick Skinner, from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.

Iraqi helicopters were seen firing rockets at the village of Abu Saif, mainly at a hill that overlooks the city's airport and provides the militants with a natural defence line on the southern approaches to Mosul.

"Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world", the commander of the US-led coalition forces, Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, said in a statement. "But the Iraqi forces have adapted to ISIS' tactics and they will drive back the enemy whose finite resources wane with each passing day", he added.

Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, launched a ground battle to retake western Mosul from Islamic State (IS) in a campaign that is expected to be complicated and extended, but will mean a significant loss to Islamic State as it will be forced to give up on its territorial ambitions in Iraq.

"This is zero hour and we are going to end this war, God willing", said Mahmoud Mansour, a police officer, as he prepared to move out.

In the early stages of the offensive, the army dropped tens of thousands of leaflets into Mosul, some bearing safety instructions for residents, most of whom remained in the city.

But the western side, with its narrow streets, may prove a bigger challenge.

"Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh", Abadi said, using an Arabic acronym for the group that took over the northern city in June 2014.

New batches of children arrived at the Zuhur orphanage every few weeks from outside Mosul, including a few from neighboring Syria, while older boys were sent to the town of Tel Afar west of Mosul for intensive military training for duties including with ISIS's courts or vice squad, residents said. Prices of kerosene and cooking gas have skyrocketed, and numerous most destitute families are burning wood, furniture, plastic or garbage for cooking and heating.

The situation is distressing.

The UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, told the BBC on Saturday that "all of the parties to the conflict do absolutely everything they can to ensure that civilians survive the battle, and that they live". "We are hearing reports of parents struggling to feed their children and to heat their homes".

"It's a good plan, it worked for us in the eastern side", he said. It said United Nations humanitarian agencies will assist civilians caught in the fighting.

Eastern Mosul was declared fully liberated in January, but has already experienced several militant attacks as Iraqi special forces pull out of the east and Iraqi army units, with less training and experience, take over the area.

  • Larry Hoffman