AIN ISSA, Syria,, (Pakistan Point News - APP - 07th Nov, 2016 ) : A US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance pushed closer to Syria's Raqa and Iraqi forces seized a key town near Mosul as offensives advanced Monday against the two Islamic State group strongholds. After announcing the start of the long-awaited assault on Raqa on Sunday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance said it had moved south towards the city despite fierce jihadist resistance.
South of Mosul, Iraqi forces had retaken Hamam al-Alil from IS, a key objective in their three-week advance on the city. Raqa and Mosul are the last major cities in Syria and Iraq under the jihadists' control, and their capture would deal a knockout blow to the self-styled "caliphate" IS declared in mid-2014. The US-led coalition that launched operations against IS two years ago is providing crucial backing to the offensives, with both air strikes and special forces advisers on the ground.
Spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed told AFP that SDF forces had advanced on two fronts towards Raqa amid heavy fighting. Alliance forces had pushed at least 10 kilometres (six miles) south towards the city from the towns of Ain Issa and Suluk, she said. In both cases SDF fighters were still some distance from Raqa -- on the Ain Issa front at least 30 kilometres (20 miles) away. "The offensive is going according to plan," said Ahmed, who added that at least 10 villages had been taken so far.
- 'Fight will not be easy' - ============================ An SDF commander said IS was fighting back with its favourite tactic of sending suicide bombers in explosives-packed vehicles against advancing forces. "IS is sending car bombers but coalition planes and our anti-tank weapons are limiting their effectiveness," the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity. After taking Abu al-Ilaj north of Raqa, SDF fighters could be seen digging trenches and piling sandbags at the entrance to the village.
"In every area that we advance we are digging trenches with tractors and bulldozers to protect the front line, to prevent the jihadists from getting in and to stop car bombs," one fighter said. The SDF says some 30,000 of its fighters are taking part in the operation, dubbed "Wrath of the Euphrates". It aims to surround and isolate IS inside Raqa before eventually assaulting the city itself. Officials have warned that the battle is likely to be long and difficult. "As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead," US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said.