Iraqi forces push into ISIL-held southern Mosul

Iraqi Special Forces soldiers drive in a desert near Mosul Iraq

In October, the Iraqi army - backed by a US -led air coalition and local allies on the ground - began a wide-ranging campaign to retake Mosul, once Iraq's second largest city in terms of population.

"They are striking and engaging our forces and pulling back toward Mosul", Major Mortada Ali Abd of the Rapid Response units told a Reuters correspondent south of Mosul.

The Observatory also confirmed that they had seen evidence that 25 children had died of starvation in January alone, as Daesh extremists and the Iraqi government, backed by the US-led coalition and Iran-backed Shia jihadists, fight over Mosul.

Athbah and Al-Lazzagah villages were recovered from the clutches of the jihadist group in an operation announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

However, the western side of Mosul, with its narrow streets and a heavy population of between 750,000 and 800,000, appears to be a bigger challenge to the Iraqi forces, according to the United Nations estimates.

Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, launched a ground battle to retake western Mosul from Islamic State (IS) in a campaign that is expected to be complicated and extended, but will mean a significant loss to Islamic State as it will be forced to give up on its territorial ambitions in Iraq. "We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul", he said in a brief televised address, referring to the governorate surrounding the city.

The streets around the historic centre, which includes the mosque in which ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in June 2014, will be impassable for many military vehicles and force government fighters to take on ISIL in perilous dismounted warfare.

The coalition has conducted more than 10,000 air strikes on Isil targets in Iraq and trained and equipped more than 70,000 Iraqi troops, the general's statement said.

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The involvement of many local and foreign players with diverging interests in the war, heightens the risk that they could clash between themselves after Islamic State is defeated.

Iraqi forces have attacked ISIS jihadists defending the west of Mosul.

Iraqi planes dropped millions of leaflets on the western side of Mosul on Saturday warning residents that the battle to dislodge ISIS was imminent as troops began moving in their direction.

Mosul is the largest city it captured in both countries and its de facto capital in Iraq.

According to the organisation, up to 650,000 residents may be trapped in the area.

About 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the start of the offensive in October, U.N. officials say.

The fight for Mosul's western half could be even more protracted than for its east.

The humanitarian agencies were gearing up to aid 250,000 to 400,000 civilians who may flee because of the fighting, the statement said.

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