The Iraqi air force dropped thousands of leaflets early Sunday morning on the city of Mosul, warning residents to take shelter in preparation for a major offensive against the city, which is currently held by the Islamic State.
Then, early Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces backed by US-led airstrikes launched coordinated military operation to retake the city that was captured by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in June 2014. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operations on state television, launching the country's toughest battle since American troops left nearly five years ago.
Over the past few months, the militants have weakened, losing ground in both Syria and Iraq.
Retaking Mosul would be a major victory against the Islamic State. But ISIS is not expected to give up easily, and the invasion is expected to be one of the costliest and most politically complex in the conflict so far.
Mosul is located about 250 miles north of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River. Before it was captured by ISIS, the city had a population of about 2 million people, though many fled as the militants neared the city. Though the current population is unknown, but some estimates put it at more than one million residents, and it was by far the most populous city captured by the Islamic State, and it remains the geographically largest city under the control of the terrorist organization.
But for some weeks now, various factions, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters, and the Iraqi military have been coordinating a push to retake the city at last.
"We promise you that victory is near and that it will be a great victory fitting with the greatness of Iraq and its history and its people," Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs,) told CNN. The PMUs are a state-sponsored organization consisting of about 40 different militias that have mobilized against ISIS, consisting of Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Yazidi fighters.
Many of the factions fighting the Islamic State are former enemies themselves, and the show of unity among all the groups against their common foe is an unprecedented and inspiring display of unity. But retaking Mosul will be the most difficult challenge yet faced by the unlikely allies.
The estimated 8,000 ISIS militants in Mosul have been preparing for the invasion, digging a trench around the city filled with oil that will be set alight as the attack begins. ISIS is thought to have rigged explosives around the city, including an especially hazardous one at a local chemical plant, and will likely try to use civilians as human shields.
"Isil is panicked," one resident, who gave only the name Ahmed to protect his identity, told The Telegraph via WhatsApp. "Since they lost Qayyarah, they have begun to tighten their security; carrying out mass arrests and raiding houses in search for weapons and illegal phones."
A desperate ISIS will be a difficult adversary to overcome. The difficulty will be compounded as civilians attempt to flee the oncoming battle. Last week, the UN announced that it is making preparations to deal with the massive humanitarian crisis as the battle draws closer.
As violent as the retaking of Mosul is expected to be, many have high hopes that victory will send the Islamic State into a downward spiral from which it may never recover.
"We’re not just talking a symbolic victory [over IS in Mosul]; this is going to be the death blow for IS the caliphate," Hayder al-Khoei, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London, told the Monitor earlier this month. But he also cautioned that the Islamic State will likely remain dangerous even after it loses the last of its territory:
"They are still going to be a very powerful, a very relevant terrorist organization," Mr. Khoei says. "And if anything, the loss of their state will increase the frequency of their attacks, both in the West and certainly in Iraq and Syria. This is simply for them to say, ‘We are still relevant. The loss of our capital in Iraq isn’t going to make us go away.'"
The battle for Mosul may be just as pivotal for Iraq. Analysts say that seizure of the last major IS stronghold in the country – following government recapture of the cities of Tikrit, Ramadi, and, most recently, Fallujah in June – may also help change the narrative of a weak and helpless centralized state by convincing Iraqi citizens of a resurrected military capability.
After the battle is over in Mosul, there are many questions about what may happen to the city, especially with so many opposing factions involved in its liberation, including foreign powers like the US. The largely Sunni city has also expressed a desire for a more independent role from the majority-Shia Iraq in the past, an extra level of potential conflict which has many analysts concerned. However, as the Monitor has pointed out:
Those who despair over this possibility happening need to know that about 40 percent of Iraqis were from Sunni-Shia mixed marriages until the 2003 American invasion. (The children of such marriages are dubbed “Sushis.”) And ever since IS took over a third of Iraq’s territory two years ago, the Iraqi Army has made major reforms that have brought more Sunnis into its ranks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to keep a delicate balance of Sunnis and Shiites in his government.
At least for now, many factions, even traditional enemies are standing strong against the Islamic State.
"It's victory time," say the leaflets dropped on Mosul Sunday, quoting Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi. "Time to celebrate a clean Iraq without 'Daesh' [ISIS] or any dark belief."
This article contains material from Reuters.