A military offensive to end the Islamic State's occupation of the Iraqi city of Mosul has begun, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced on early Monday, nearly 2.5 years after militants seized control of the city.
Al-Abadi, speaking in an address broadcast on state television just after 1:30 a.m. local time, said the operation to liberate Mosul had begun. "We have come to save you and to rescue you from terrorism, and to rescue you from Daesh," he said.
The announcement comes hours after Iraqi aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets over Mosul, warning civilians in the city that military operations were about to begin.
"Soon, God willing, we will meet on Mosul's soil to celebrate its liberation and your salvation together, and we will once again live together - all our religions and all our sects - in equality, loving each other and cooperating with each other," al-Abadi said, as quoted by DPA.
Mosul, the country's second largest city and once home to some 2 million people, is the last major ISIS stronghold in Iraq. It is believed that as many as 4,500 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, though the group itself claims the number to be higher.
"Tonight, PM Abadi issued orders to initiate major operations to liberate Mosul after two years of darkness under ISIL terrorists," said Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition. "Godspeed to the heroic Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Ninewa volunteers. We are proud to stand with you in this historic operation."
As many as 30,000 anti-ISIS forces are taking part in the operations to retake Mosul, and the forces on the ground will receive support with airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition.
Mosul, located in northern Ninewa province and about 356 kilometers (221 miles) northwest of Baghdad, was seized by the Islamic State in June 2014. At the time, the group was still known as an al-Qaeda splinter group and had not yet declared itself a caliphate.
More than half a million civilians fled Mosul in the days after the city was seized by the Islamic State, but as many as 1 million civilians either chose to stay or were unable to leave and have lived under the group's rule ever since.
Losing Mosul would represent a major defeat for the Islamic State and would come just four months after Iraqi forces liberated Fallujah, which was the first city to fall into the hands of ISIS. The Islamic State has also lost territory in Syria and Libya, though it continues to control cities such as Raqqa in Syria.
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