SDF Begins Raqqa Offensive, Progress Continues in Mosul

The offensive in Raqqa comes as Iraqi security forces near victory in west Mosul, though progress has been slow in the densely populated areas of Iraq's second-largest city. Since then, the SDF has liberated more than 5,000 square miles of territory in the surgical advance to encircle and choke off Raqqa before moving in.

Islamic State fighters are also under pressure across the border in Iraq, where USA -backed forces are locked in a grinding battle to retake the last neighborhoods held by the extremist group in the sprawling city of Mosul.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes on the edge of Raqqa's eastern neighborhood of Mashlab as well as inside Division 17, a former Syrian army base now controlled by IS north of the city. The city is the heart of IS territory in Syria, the center of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the current focus of the United States-led coalition's operations in Syria.

The SDF launched the Raqqa attack on Monday at dawn, the start of what Davis said "will be a very, very hard battle going forward".

"We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England", Townsend said. "ISIS threatens all our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our homelands as well".

"The International Coalition and our partner forces are steadily dismantling the physical caliphate of ISIS", said Townsend.

The coalition estimates that 3,000-4,000 IS fighters are in Raqqa and about 200,000 civilians.

Marine Corps artillery teams provided cover for SDF fighters making their way toward the city limits, lobbing 155 mm shells onto Islamic State defensive positions.

Davis acknowledged much of Islamic State's leadership had fled Raqqa in anticipation of the USA -backed assault, moving south down the Euphrates River Valley to Dair Alzour and Mayadeen.

Washington's decision to back a Kurdish-led force has soured relations with Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally, which is battling Kurdish militants within its own borders. "None of the Arab forces have any real power in this battle", one man said in a recent interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Thousands have managed to flee to areas held by the SDF.

A US-led coalition air strike killed 21 civilians on Monday as they tried to escape Raqqa, SOHR said.

At least 150,000 people have already been displaced by the battles in Raqqa province, according to UNICEF. Daesh militants have also reportedly been preventing civilians from leaving, it said.

"It will obviously be an operation that is going to be hard going forward and there will be a lot of painstaking efforts to try to avoid civilian casualties as they more in".

"Many, many questions still remain to be answered, and still will probably be the subject of a diplomatic battle in terms of who controls Raqqa once it is liberated", Lesch told VOA.

"The IRC has seen a drop in the number of people escaping Raqqa over the past week", its Middle East Director of Public Affairs Thomas Garofalo said, adding this may indicate Islamic State meant to use them as human shields.

He also said the SDF and the Raqqa Civilian Council have asked civilians to leave Raqqa.

He said the coalition expected IS to use similar tactics to those it had employed during the months-long battle in Mosul, including the use of armored auto bombs as its "weapon of choice".

"They have had three years to establish their defenses there. We expect a fight very similar to what we've seen in Mosul", he said, while adding that Raqqa is a much smaller city. "With the global coalition's warplanes and the state-of-the-art weapons they provided to us, we will seize Raqqa from Daesh" The coalition air strikes on Raqqa have taken a toll on civilians.

In a statement carried by Reuters, the SDF said that it will announce "the start of the fifth stage of the campaign to liberate Raqqa which will include an assault on the city".

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