Baghdad: Sniper fire by Islamic State militants killed a senior Iraqi commander near the northern IS-held city of Mosul, the extremist group's main bastion in Iraq, as the UN refugee agency warned that thousands of civilians have been newly displaced from that area.
Iraq's Defence Ministry said late yesterday that Brig Ahmed Badr al-Luhaibi, the commander of Brigade 71st of Division 15, was killed by a sniper during an operation to retake a village south of Mosul.
The statement lauded al-Luhaibi as a "knight" and said his death would "increase our determination to clear" the entire province of Nineveh, where Mosul is the provincial capital, of IS militants.
Mosul - Iraq's second-largest city - fell to the Islamic State group during the militants' June 2014 onslaught that captured large swaths of northern and western Iraq and also almost a third of neighbouring Syria.
The city, about 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, became also the largest city in the extremist group's
self-declared caliphate on the territories the militants control. Along with a major offensive to retake Fallujah, a city in western Anbar province, Iraqi troops have this week resumed small-scale operations to dislodge IS militants from areas to the south and southeast of Mosul.
In late March, the government forces launched a military operation aimed at clearing areas between Makmour and the adjacent Qayara areas outside of Mosul, to the east of the Tigris River, and to cut one of the supply lines to the nearby IS-held Shirqat area.
But retaking Mosul itself is not likely to come anytime soon. It will be an enormous undertaking for the Iraqi troops, even though they are backed by airstrikes from the US-led coalition and have been joined by pro-government fighters, mostly Shiite militias.
Iraqi and US officials have refrained from giving a specific time for a Mosul operation, saying it would take many months to prepare Iraq's still struggling military. Some of the US and Iraqi officials have said it may not even be possible to retake it this year, despite repeated vows by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The UNHCR said yesterday the fighting outside Mosul has displaced over 14,000 Iraqis since March. Of that number, more than 8,000 people left from villages east of the Tigris, putting additional pressure on existing camps for refugees and the displaced.
Since April, 6,700 more Iraqis have crossed into Syria's northeastern Hassakeh province using local smuggling networks. Some of those refugees managed to escape Mosul.