Iraqi forces resumed their offensive against the Islamic State in Mosul on Sunday after a weeks-long pause, aiming to capture the militant-controlled western half of the city, where the tight, impassable streets and teeming neighborhoods will pose a formidable challenge to the advancing fighters. 

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the offensive in a televised address early Sunday, calling it “a dawn of victories.” As he spoke, units from Iraq’s army, federal police and state-sanctioned militias approached Mosul from the south and west. By day’s end, they had captured a dozen tiny and mostly vacant villages south of Mosul, along with an electricity station, officials said.

The painless start belied a complicated and arduous battle ahead. Eastern Mosul was captured in January after months of punishing urban combat that left hundreds of civilians dead and elite Iraqi units battered by the stiff militant defenses, including roadside bombs, sniper fire and explosives-laden vehicles. 

Iraqi troops will face all that and worse in western Mosul, across the bombed-out bridges on the Tigris River, fighting in a warren of streets too narrow for tanks against Islamist extremists who have had months to prepare a deadly welcome. Each passing week of combat poses growing risks to hundreds of thousands of civilians still in the city, facing shortages of food, water, electricity and medicine and all but sequestered in their homes until Iraqi troops arrive. 


“Families in western Mosul tell us escape is not an option — if they try to flee, they risk summary execution by ISIS fighters or a gauntlet of sniper fire and land mines,” Maurizio Crivallero, the Iraq country director for Save the Children, the Britain-based charity, said in a statement last week, using an acronym for the Islamic State. 

An estimated 350,000 children remain trapped in the city, he said. “The impact of artillery and other explosive weaponry in those narrow, densely-populated streets is likely to be more deadly and indiscriminate than anything we have seen in the conflict so far,” he said.  

U.S. troops involved in the air campaign said Sunday that there is broad recognition that it will be harder to carry out airstrikes in the western part of the city, citing the way remaining fighters have entrenched themselves as well as the closely settled nature of neighborhoods.

 “It’s going to be a full-on cat-and-mouse fight in western Mosul,” said Air Force Lt. Col. August Pfluger, a squadron commander and F-22 Raptor pilot. “We are literally fighting city block by city block, and putting ordnance where the Iraqi ground forces want them.”

The offensive aims to reverse the Islamic State’s stunning advance into cities and towns across Iraq in the summer of 2014, a humiliating defeat for Nouri al-Maliki, Abadi’s predecessor as premier, and a setback that raised concerns about the morale and capabilities of Iraq’s military. 

The latest advance on Mosul also comes at a time of rising tension between the Iraqi government and the United States over the White House decision to halt immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq.

The Trump administration’s escalating condemnations of Iran, a dominant power in Iraq and a sponsor of Shiite militias fighting alongside Iraqi government units, has also threatened to complicate the efforts against the Islamic State.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, speaking Sunday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, said that U.S. forces would continue “with the accelerated effort to destroy ISIS.”  

 Before the military push Sunday, thousands of leaflets were dropped over western Mosul, announcing the impending offensive and asking residents to “receive your brothers in the armed forces and cooperate with them.” 

In the past few days, the United States has also stepped up its air sorties over Mosul, to about 30 to 50 a day from about 12 to 20, said Col. Kevin M. Eastland, vice commander of the Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. The unit has gone from using two of the six F-22s it has in the Middle East per day to four — a pace commanders do not consider sustainable for long periods because of maintenance requirements.

 An F-22 pilot, who asked that his name not be published because of security concerns, said some of his recent airstrikes hit a police station used by the Islamic State in Mosul and a command-and-control center. He and his colleagues had been in somewhat of a “lull,” in which they would often return to base hours later with some of their bombs, he said, but had received a list a few days ago that included about 110 “deliberate” targets that had been planned for weeks by U.S. military and intelligence officials.

On the ground, the first military objectives include an Islamic State-controlled village and Mosul’s airport, both in the south of the city, Iraqi commanders said. On Sunday, in a reminder of the Islamic State’s ability to strike behind Iraqi lines, at least two suicide bombers carried out attacks in eastern Mosul, killing at least one person, officials said. 

Fahim reported from Istanbul and Lamothe from Abu Dhabi.