BAGHDAD (AP) — 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 U.N. refugee agency warned that thousands of civilians have been newly displaced from that area.
Iraq's Defense Ministry said late Tuesday 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 neighboring Syria. The city, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) 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 U.S.-led coalition and have been joined by pro-government fighters, mostly Shiite militias.
Iraqi and U.S. 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 U.S. 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 on Tuesday 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.
Frédéric Cussigh, head of UNHCR's field response unit in the northern, semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, warned that there are no safe routes for those escaping war.
The civilians and "families use secondary routes, mostly at night, crossing dangerous terrain," he said, adding that the U.N. refugee agency has reports that some of the people have been "trapped, severely injured or killed in minefields on their way to safety."
The UNHCR warned that the eventual assault on Mosul could result in a massive displacement of about 600,000 people.
In Fallujah, the United Nations says about 50,000 civilians remain trapped inside the city while about 42,000 people have fled since the military operation began in late May. Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council say the number of those who have fled Fallujah is closer to 30,000, lower than the U.N. estimate.
The conflict in Iraq has forced 3.3 million people to flee their homes. Iraq is also hosting up to 300,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in neighboring Syria. Most are living in camps or informal settlements.