Iraqi forces launched an offensive on jihadists defending Mosul's west bank Sunday, in what could be the most brutal fighting yet in a four-month-old operation on the city.
"Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a short televised speech, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
"We announce the start of a new phase in the operation. We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul," he said, referring to the province of which Mosul is the capital.
Federal police and interior ministry forces were expected to start the new phase in the offensive by moving on Mosul airport, which is on the southern edge of the city, west of the Tigris River.
The jihadists have put up stiff resistance to defend Mosul, their last major stronghold in Iraq and the place where their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" in 2014.
After shaping operations around Mosul, it took Iraq's most seasoned forces -- the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) -- more than two months to clear the eastern side of Mosul.
After a pause in the operation launched on October 17, federal forces now face what was always billed as the toughest nut to crack: Mosul's west bank, home to the narrow streets of the Old City.
"West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale," said Patrick Skinner, from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.
The streets around the historical centre, which includes the mosque in which Baghdadi made his only public appearance in June 2014, will be impassable for many military vehicles and force government fighters to take on IS in perilous dismounted warfare.
Prior to the offensive that saw IS seize Mosul and much of Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland nearly three years ago, the east bank was more ethnically diverse than the west, where analysts believe the jihadists could enjoy more support.
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