- 11:17, 17 Oct 2016
- Updated 16:35, 17 Oct 2016
- By Chris kitching
The battle could be ISIS' last stand in Iraq and it could deliver a massive blow to the terror group's operations elsewhere, including Syria
ISIS' last stronghold in Iraq came under attack on Monday as Iraqi government forces launched a massive military operation to recapture the city of Mosul.
A force of around 30,000 Iraqi government, Kurdish peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters - backed by the US-led coalition in the air and on the ground - advanced on the northern city, which has been under ISIS rule for more than two years.
Iraq's military claimed it inflicted "heavy losses of life" on ISIS on the first day of the campaign.
The battle could be ISIS' last stand in Iraq and it could deliver a massive blow to the terror group's operations elsewhere, including Syria.
However around a million civilians are caught up in the bloody conflict and aid groups fear many could be killed or injured if they are unable to flee.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters fire a mortar shell from the top of Mount Zardak
Smoke rises after an air strike on ISIS targets
Iraqi forces advance towards Mosul to recapture the city from ISIS
Scenes from the front lines were broadcast live on the internet as embedded journalists reported from peshmerge positions.
Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a televised address that government troops are trying to free around a million residents, including hundreds of thousands of children, who have been trapped by the 'brutality' of terrorists.
He announced the start of a siege that is Iraq's toughest battle since American troops left nearly five years ago.
The US predicted ISIS would suffer "a lasting defeat".
The UN refugee agency warned that up to 100,000 Iraqis may flee to Syria and Turkey as a result of the assault on Iraq's second-largest city.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters fire a multiple rocket launcher
Mosul has been under ISIS control for two years
Save the Children said people are already making a dangerous escape, with 5,000 fleeing villages and crossing into Syria, where they are living in desperate conditions, in the past week.
There are also fears the conflict could lead to sectarian violence between the city's mainly Sunni population and advancing Shi'ite forces.
Convoys of forces were seen moving on the ISIS stronghold and US-led coalition strikes sent plumes of smoke into the air as the battle intensified.
Explosions were heard on the city's eastern front, where Kurdish fighters were trying to take outlying villages.
Video showing rockets and bursts of tracer bullets against the night sky was broadcast on Qatar-based Al Jazeera.
The battle could deliver a significant blow against ISIS in Iraq and Syria
In his televised address Mr al-Abadi, joined by military commanders, told viewers: "These forces that are liberating you today, they have one goal in Mosul, which is to get rid of Daesh and to secure your dignity.
"They are there for your sake. God willing, we shall win."
The air campaign has driven ISIS from much of its territory in Iraq but as many as 8,000 militants are thought to remain in Mosul.
Residents contacted by telephone by Reuters dismissed reports on Arabic television channels that the jihadists had left.
Mosul is ISIS' last stronghold in Iraq
Smoke rises after an air strike on ISIS targets
One resident, Abu Maher, said: "Daesh are using motorcycles for their patrols to evade air detection, with pillion passengers use binoculars to check out buildings and streets from a distance."
He said residents were preparing makeshift defences and had been stockpiling food in anticipation of a battle that could last weeks or even months.
He added: "We set up a fortified room in the house by putting sandbags to block the only window and we removed everything dangerous or flammable.
"I spent almost all my money on buying food, baby milk and anything we might need."
Iraqi troops, including elite special forces, have been gathering around Mosul for days in preparation of the assault.
They were joined by Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters, federal police and Shiite militia forces.
Peshmerga forces gather in the east of Mosul
The Iraq-led assault aims to free around a million residents
After the city was seized by ISIS in 2014 its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a "caliphate" in Iraq and neighbouring Syria from Mosul's Grand Mosque.
With a lengthy battle expected aid groups have expressed concern for the city's residents, saying safe escape routes do not exist.
Aram Shakaram, Save the Children’s Deputy Country Director in Iraq, said: "Unless safe routes to escape the fighting are established, many families will have no choice but to stay and risk being killed by crossfire or bombardment, trapped beyond the reach of humanitarian aid with little food or medical care.
"Those that try to flee will be forced to navigate a city ringed with booby traps, snipers and hidden landmines.
"Without immediate action to ensure people can flee safely, we are likely to see bloodshed of civilians on a massive scale.”
Save the Children said military commanders have asked vulnerable families and children to stay inside and put white flags on their homes.
Reporters embedded with peshmerga fighters are providing live updates
The organisation said: "At best this is impractical in a brutal urban conflict. At worst, it risks civilian buildings being turned into military positions and families being used as human shields. This is unacceptable."
Families have been preparing shelters in case of bombardment but cannot afford to buy water, food or basic medical supplies, said Save the Children.
Most are too scared to leave the city until the roads out are secured, and the organisation has called for safe routes to be immediately identified, maintained and cleared of deadly explosives.
Shakaram added: "Vast sums of money have been spent on military planning, equipment and ordinance - but an investment in the safety of children must be the priority."
Those who do escape face an uncertain situation as UN refugee camps are only ready for around 60,000 people, he added.
ISIS fighters stand guard in Mosul after capturing the city in 2014
The UN refugee agency has appealed to foreign leaders for an additional $61m to fund Mosul-related relief operations in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
It said the funds will be used to provide additional tents and winter items, including heating stoves.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said the country is ready for hundreds of thousands of refugees.
But he said Turkey does not expect an influx of refugees if the operation is conducted "correctly".
Dr Natasha Underhill, an expert on terrorism in the Middle East at Nottingham Trent University, said this battle could be the "beginning of the end" for ISIS.
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She said: "If the campaign to retake Mosul is a success, it would not only be a massive military defeat for IS but more importantly it would be massive blow to its ideological stance.
"Mosul symbolises the heart of the caliphate for the group and removing this would mark the beginning of the end for a group who is already struggling for survival.
"The group is no longer the powerhouse that it once appeared and is in fact struggling not only to gain support but to keep the support in place that it currently has."