The coalition offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the self-styled Islamic State could take some time, according to both France and the US.
The French Defence Minister Jean-Yves LeDrian said on Tuesday: “The battle is crucial because it is the stronghold of Daesh (ISIL),” he told reporters. “Mosul is the stronghold of our enemy… but the battle will be long, it won’t be a Blitzkrieg, this is a town of a million-and-a-half inhabitants so it’s a long term affair, several weeks, perhaps months,” he said.
The Pentagon, which is providing special operations and air support, has also predicted “a difficult campaign that could take some time”.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces made gains on the offensive’s first day, securing some 20 villages on the city’s outskirts.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says it is preparing gas masks in case of chemical attack by the militants, who have previously used such weapons against Iraqi Kurdish forces.
“There has been some evidence that ISIL might be using chemical weapons. Children, the elderly, disabled, will e particularly vulnerable,” said the IOM’s Iraq chief Thomas Weiss.
As Kurdish TV showed the first civilians fleeing the area, the IOM warns that tens of thousands of people could be forcibly expelled, trapped by fighting or used as human shields.
Weiss said on Tuesday that he expected a sharp rise in the number of people forced to flee as the fighting got closer to the city.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is quoted as saying it is preparing to receive as many as 800,000 people, many more than the number it can currently provide for.
A video released by ISIL’s news agency al-Amaq purported to show an Iraqi army Abrams tank being struck by a missile fired by its fighters.
ISIL – known locally as Daesh – seized Mosul, then Iraq’s second-largest city, in June 2014.
Once it is liberated there are fears that the defeat of the hardline Sunni militants could lead to sectarian violence.
Foreign ministers from several Western and Middle Eastern countries will meet on Thursday to discuss how to restore peace and stability to Mosul after ISIL has been routed from its Iraqi stronghold.