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(Reuters) Iraqi forces have advanced to 5 km (3 miles) from Mosul in an offensive against ISIL’s last major Iraq stronghold and there are signs of revolt against the group, the interior minister of the Kurdish regional government said on Saturday.
But he added that the battle is not expected to end soon.
Karim Sinjari, who is also acting defence minister in the area, told Reuters in an interview that ISIL terrorists believed to number between 4,000 and 8,000 – will put up a fierce fight because of Mosul’s symbolic value for the hardline Sunni jihadis.
“If they resist in the city, especially in old Mosul, it will be a big fight … The roads are very thin, very narrow. You can’t have vehicles, you can’t have tanks. So it will be a fight, person by person,” he said.
ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate and himself the leader of the world’s Muslims at a Mosul mosque after seizing Iraq’s second largest city in 2014.
“If Mosul is finished the caliphate they announced is finished. If they lose in Mosul, they will have no place, just Raqqa,” Sinjari told Reuters in an interview.
The Syrian city of Raqqa is ISIL’s other major stronghold.
“They will have to go to Syria. They will be surrounded in one area.”
The much-heralded battle to capture Mosul began last week and is expected to be the most important battle fought in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq has come a long way since June 2014 when five Iraqi army divisions crumbled as ISIL swept into Mosul. ISIL has been dislodged from other major cities such as Falluja. That campaign lasted just over one month.
With air and ground support from the U.S.-led coalition, an Iraqi force of about 30,000, joined by U.S. special forces and under U.S., French and British air cover, is ready to push into Mosul after recapturing Falluja and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and seizing the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit in central Iraq.
“I think it (the fight for Mosul) will be longer than Falluja and Tikrit, Mosul is a big city,” Sinjari said.
So far, Kurdish forces have seized 20 villages and the Iraqi army have taken 10, he said.