Iraqi PM says Mosul offensive going faster than expected

By John Irish and Marine Pennetier | PARIS

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Thursday that Iraqi forces were moving faster than expected towards Islamic State’s stronghold of Mosul, and that the coordination between Shi’ite militias and Kurds showed Iraq’s unity in opposing the group.

Foreign ministers and senior diplomats from several Western and Middle Eastern countries were meeting in Paris to discuss how to restore peace and stability to Mosul after Islamic State has been routed from its Iraqi stronghold.

Speaking on a video conference call from Baghdad, Abadi said all efforts were being made to create humanitarian corridors for civilians fleeing Iraq’s second-largest city, where some 1.5 million people still live.

“The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed in our campaign plan,” Abadi said.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces said on Tuesday they had secured some 20 villages on the outskirts of Mosul, the biggest city under the control of Islamic State, which grabbed vast stretches of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Retaking Mosul would signal the defeat of the ultra-hardline Sunni jihadists in Iraq but could lead to further sectarian bloodletting, something the Baghdad government and its international backers are keen to prevent.

Abadi said human rights violations would not be accepted. He sought to try to reassure international backers that his country was entering a new phase of cooperation, to avoid falling into the sectarian violence that has torn it apart since a U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“Our war today in Mosul is an Iraqi war conducted by Iraqis for Iraqis and for the defence of Iraq’s territory,” he said, stressing that it was the first time in 25 years that Iraqi forces had entered northern Kurdish territory to fight together.

“Full Iraqi unity is shining through and more than ever showing the unity to vanquish terrorism,” he said.

The Paris meeting will seek to put together some guidelines on how to administrate the city after the departure of Islamic State, but also protecting civilians and providing aid.

In his opening speech, French President Francois Hollande said, however, it was also important to begin planning a separate offensive on the group’s bastion Raqqa in Syria, where he said Islamic State fighters were already fleeing from Mosul.

“We must be exemplary in chasing down the terrorists who are leaving Mosul for Raqqa,” he said. “We cannot accept success as allowing those who were in Mosul to disappear to other locations where they can then launch attacks.”

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Callus and Alison Williams)