U.S. President Barack Obama says a battle now underway to recapture Iraq's northern city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants will be "a difficult fight," but he is confident that Iraqi forces leading the military operation will defeat the militant group.
Obama's comments on October 18 come a day after Baghdad announced that Iraqi government forces had begun the long-awaited offensive with support from U.S.-led coalition air strikes.
Speaking at the White House in Washington, Obama said "the start of Iraqi operations to liberate Mosul is another major step forward."
Obama said the IS militants who seized Mosul in June 2014 "will be defeated in Mosul."
Earlier on October 18, Iraqi military commanders said progress was being made in their offensive after government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters advanced to the south and the east of Mosul.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has said that only the "Iraqi army with the national police" will enter Mosul, a Sunni-majority city.
That's important because Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have been taking part in operations around Mosul along with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters – raising concerns about how those forces might treat Sunni civilians after the liberation of Mosul.
Correspondents positioned with the Peshmerga forces reported on October 18 that the Peshmerga advance had largely paused -- despite the lack of significant resistance by IS fighters east of Mosul.
Peshmerga commanders stationed along that front said on October 18 that their 4,000 fighters in the battle were consolidating gains they had made the previous day.
WATCH: Iraqi, Kurdish Forces Liberate Villages Outside Mosul
The deputy commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the battle, General Ato Zebari, indicated in an interview with Radio Farda that his forces have been tasked primarily with holding strategic positions at villages to the east of Mosul for now, before shifting toward other objectives outside of Mosul.
Zebari told Radio Farda by telephone on October 18 that his troops were continuing to carry out their objectives in accordance with the battle plan.
He said his Peshmerga troops were "being redeployed" and were "not everywhere," adding that the "operations will start on other front lines" in the coming days.
'Ahead Of Schedule'
Meanwhile, Iraqi army forces on October 18 continued to advance from the south toward the east side of Mosul -- reaching the outskirts of Hamdaniya -- a strategic crossroad town that also is known as Bakhida -- about 12 kilometers east of Mosul.
Iraqi army forces also advanced on October 18 to the town of Houd to the south of Mosul.
The Pentagon said late on October 17 that Iraqi forces appeared to be "ahead of schedule" after their first day of operations.
Correspondents confirmed they had seized positions in villages outside of Mosul that were being defended by small pockets of IS fighters who had faced an intensive aerial bombardment ahead of the ground advance.
But Western military officials also warned that the battle would be long and difficult -- particularly after government forces reach the city of Mosul and the battle transforms into one of urban combat.
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces, said the campaign was likely to continue for weeks, possibly longer.
An AFP correspondent at Qayyarah Airfield West, the main staging base for Iraqi government troops about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, reported that Iraqi police were being rotated in and out of the front line on October 18.
Meanwhile, speaking by telephone from inside Mosul, resident Abu Saif told AFP that heavy smoke was hanging over city because IS fighters were burning tires in an attempt to shield themselves from air strikes.
EU Commissioner Warns Of Militant Influx
In related news, the European Union's security commissioner has warned that the bloc should be prepared for an influx of militants if the Islamic State (IS) group is driven out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Even a small number of militants would pose "a serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for," said Julian King in an interview with Germany's Die Welt newspaper published on October 18.
The UN has warned that as many as 1 million people may be forced from their homes during the campaign, which is expected to continue for weeks, possibly longer.
King, a Briton, also said that some 2,500 IS fighters from what he called the combat areas were from EU member states.
In Berlin, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said efforts to combat the IS group in Iraq and Syria won't increase the risk of attacks at home, noting that "the threat is already high."
De Maiziere said authorities expect IS fighters from Europe to try to return as the group faces military setbacks, but that authorities are working to minimize security threats.
Some 30,000 Iraqi government troops are involved in the campaign – the largest military operation in Iraq since the withdrawal in 2011 of most U.S. troops.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and the BBC