Iraqi Kurdistan president says 200 sq km area near Mosul is "liberated", but warns the armed group’s threat is not over.
A joint operation carried out by Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga troops has "liberated" a 200 sq km area around Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said.
Barzani made the announcement on Monday, following the launch of a major operation to free Iraq’s second largest city from the armed group, which has held it since 2014.
"Today is a turning point in the war against terrorism. This is the first time that Peshmerga forces and Iraqi army have cooperated and fought in the same area," Barzani said during a press conference near Mosul.
"We are hopeful that this operation will be successful and that Mosul will be liberated. But this does not mean that the terrorist threat is over."
Barzani said the joint offensive had been launched from south and east of Mosul.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman of the US forces, said the US carried out air strikes in Mosul "to soften up" the areas controlled by ISIL, allowing Iraqi forces to advance.
"We do provide our intelligence capability, we provide our logistics, these are capabilities that the coalition has that are singularly distinctive. We are very capable in these areas, and it is a big help to the Iraqis as they move into position," he said.
"The plan is for the Iraqis to liberate Mosul, They are going to be the ones that will move in to the city," he said.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from northern Iraq, said at least nine villages have been retaken from ISIL, but two key areas along the highway between Erbil and Mosul were still being disputed.
"We are hearing intensive gunfire going on as the Peshmerga are trying to advance," she said, adding that Peshmerga forces reported incidents of suicide attacks carried out by ISIL fighters.
She said at least five Peshmerga forces and one Iraqi army soldier were killed in the operation on Monday.
"It’s in the very early days and it is going to be a long fight. It is not going to be easy," Dekker said.
Our correspondent also said that while it is significant that Iraqi forces and Peshmerga fighters are fighting together against ISIL, differences remain as to which of the competing groups would take control of the disputed areas after they are recaptured.
"With some many different factions and groups with their own interests, Mosul highlights again that the political plan has not been put in place yet after ISIL is gone," our correspondent said.
The bid to retake Mosul on Monday comes after the military, backed by armed tribes, militias and US-led coalition air strikes, regained much of the territory the fighters seized in 2014 and 2015.
"We are proud to stand with you in this historic operation," Brett McGurk, US envoy to the coalition against ISIL, said on Twitter at the start of the Mosul offensive.
Ash Carter, US defence secretary, called the operation a "defining moment" in the fight against ISIL.
"The United States and the rest of the international coalition stand ready to support Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga fighters, and the people of Iraq in the difficult fight ahead," he said in a statement.
"We are confident our Iraqi partners will prevail against our common enemy and free Mosul and the rest of Iraq from ISIL’s hatred and brutality."