Mosul offensive: Iraqi forces, Peshmerga aim to retake city from ISIS

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QAYYARAH, Iraq — Iraqi and Kurdish forces directed by U.S. advisers advanced on Mosul early Monday as a long-awaited offensive to end the city's brutal two-year occupation by ISIS got underway.

Onlookers cheered and danced as tanks rolled toward the city under sky blackened by burning oil wells deliberately set ablaze by retreating jihadis.

Morale was high and troops flashed victory signs as they moved on the city.

"The hour has struck. The campaign to liberate Mosul has begun," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said as he announced the move.

The complex military operation will be the largest in Iraq since American troops left in 2011 and, if successful, the biggest blow yet to ISIS.

While many militants have already fled, forces advancing from all sides of the city face danger from booby traps and IEDs. One Iraqi news crew witnessed a suicide attack targeting Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Brigadier Helgord Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces, said 4,000 Peshmerga launched from about 60 miles to the east of the city and had retaken a cluster of villages.

"They are advancing to Bartella and liberating all areas on the way to that location," he told NBC News.

On the other side of the city, Iraqi forces were advancing from the west and had reached Hamdaniyah, about 100 miles from the city, according to a Joint Operation Command spokesman.

A source inside Mosul told NBC News that ISIS militants and their families had "disappeared from most parts" in the east of the city and that unknown groups were trying to kill any remaining jihadis.

Iraq's second-largest city has been under ISIS rule for more than two years since government forces retreated. It is still home to up to 1.5 million civilians, according to U.N. estimates.

Stephen O'Brien, U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said he was "extremely concerned" that families were at risk of "being caught in cross-fire or targeted by snipers."

"Tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be under siege or held as human shields. Thousands may be forcibly expelled or trapped between the fighting lines," he said in a statement, calling on all parties in the conflict to "uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law."

Abadi said that ISIS would be "punished" for its crimes and that the province's cities and villages will be rebuilt.

"We will bring life back to Mosul and all other areas around Mosul," he added.

See more on the conflict with ISIS:

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Remarkable Kurdish women in militias fighting against ISIS
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Remarkable Kurdish women in militias fighting against ISIS
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian Lucia, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, plays with a dog during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian Lucia, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, poses during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian Ormia, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, loads her weapon during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - A Syriac Christian fighter, member of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, poses during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, sit talking during a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - A Syriac Christian woman, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, takes part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, take part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, take part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, have lunch on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DELIL SOULEIMAN - Syriac Christian women, members of the battalion called the 'Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers' fighting the Islamic State group, take part in a training on December 1, 2015 at their camp in the town of al-Qahtaniyah, near the Syrian-Turkish border (aka Kabre Hyore in Syriac, and Tirbespi in Kurdish). The 50 graduates that counts the battalion are following in the footsteps of Syria's other main female force battling the jihadists -- the women of the YPJ, the female counterpart to the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Young Syrian-Kurdish women take part in a training session organized by the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013, in the northern Syrian border village of al Qamishli, to prepare them to defend their villages if they come under attack. AFP PHOTO/BENJAMIN HILLER (Photo credit should read BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images)
A fighter of the Kurdish of the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) sits on sand bags as she holds a position on the front line on October 19, 2013 in the Kurdish town of Derik (aka al-Malikiyah in Arabic), in the northeastern Hasakeh governorate on the border with Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish fighters from several villages in oil-rich Hasake province are engaged in combat against Al-Qaeda affiliated groups the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. AFP PHOTO FABIO BUCCIARELLI (Photo credit should read FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Young Syrian-Kurdish woman hides under hay during a training session organized by the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013, in the northern Syrian border village of al Qamishli, to prepare them to defend their villages if they come under attack. AFP PHOTO/BENJAMIN HILLER (Photo credit should read BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images)
Young Syrian-Kurdish women take part in a training session organized by the Kurdish Women's Defense Units (YPJ) on August 28, 2013, in the northern Syrian border village of al Qamishli, to prepare them to defend their villages if they come under attack. AFP PHOTO/BENJAMIN HILLER (Photo credit should read BENJAMIN HILLER/AFP/Getty Images)
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In a statement, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the offensive a "decisive moment in the campaign to deliver [ISIS] a lasting defeat."

Brett McGurk, the State Department official coordinating the effort against group, said it would liberate Iraqis from "two years of darkness."

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a statement that the operation could take "weeks, possibly longer."

Iraqi Brig. Gen Haider Fadhil told The Associated Press in an interview that more than 25,000 troops, including paramilitary forces made up of Sunni tribal fighters and Shiite militias, were taking part.

The role of the Shiite militias has been particularly sensitive, as Nineveh, where Mosul is located, is a majority Sunni province and Shiite militia forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against civilians in other operations in majority Sunni parts of Iraq.

Fadhil voiced concern about potential action from Turkish troops based in the region of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul.

Turkey sent troops to the area late last year to train anti-ISIS fighters there. But Baghdad has seen the Turkish presence as a "blatant violation" of Iraqi sovereignty and has demanded the Turkish troops withdraw, a call Ankara has ignored.

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