Islamic State stages counter-attack as battle for Mosul rages on
Published 05/11/2016 | 08:41
Islamic State (IS) fighters have launched counter-attacks against Iraqi special forces in Mosul involving mortar fire and suicide car bombs amid fears that civilians will be used by the militants as human shields.
Artillery shelling thundered across the city as snipers traded fire from rooftops and civilians emerged from the front lines waving white flags.
The battle highlights the challenges ahead for Iraqi forces as they press into more densely populated areas of the country's second largest city, where they will not be able to rely as much on air strikes because of the risk of killing civilians.
Maj Gen Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces said: "Daesh (IS) is in the city centre and we must be very careful as our forces advance."
The special forces entered the Gogjali district, on the eastern edge of Mosul, on Tuesday, marking their first major foray into the city itself after more than two weeks of fighting in its rural outskirts.
IS fought back, pushing the special forces from the southern edge of the area. Both sides fired mortar rounds and automatic weapons, while the Iraqi troops also responded with artillery.
Dozens of civilians emerged from their homes over the course of the day, some carrying white flags. Many civilians travelling with children and elderly relatives said they had to walk more than six miles to reach a camp for the displaced.
Just a few miles from the clashes, Iraqi officers coordinating air strikes with the US-led coalition watched live drone footage showing a team of IS fighters regrouping near the front line.
"They're moving in front of the mosque," an Iraqi soldier said as he called in an air strike, which moments later flattened a small building.
Civilians moved into the area soon thereafter. Soldiers said the militants appeared to have corralled them there to prevent further strikes.
"Daesh (IS) have continued to hide behind civilians and facilitate harm to them," said Col John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, which has been launching air strikes to aid the Iraqi advance.
He said Iraqi forces and the coalition "developed a plan that is intended to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties and collateral damage".
But Iraqi captain Naqib Jaff, who was covered in dust after helping to hold positions east of Mosul overnight, said the air support "hasn't been enough" and that the coalition was only striking suicide car bombs.
He said that in previous operations against IS-held towns and cities, civilians would be moved away from the front lines, allowing forces to advance. But in Mosul, his men have been ordered to keep families inside their homes.
"We've never been in such a situation before. We would be fighting and there would be a family right next to us," he said.
The Iraqi government has ordered residents to stay inside, fearing a mass exodus from the city, which is still home to more than one million people.
The advance of the Iraqi forces was also slowed by fortifications erected by the extremists in the more than two years since they captured the city.
Trenches and berms have turned the streets and alleyways of a neighbourhood once named after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein into a maze.
Satellite images show rows of concrete barricades, earthen mounds and rubble blocking key routes into the city centre. The images, taken Monday by Stratfor, a US private intelligence firm, show that IS fighters have cleared terrain and levelled buildings around Mosul airport and a nearby former military base on the west bank of the Tigris.
Mosul is the last major IS stronghold in Iraq, and driving the militants out would deal a major blow to their self-styled caliphate stretching into neighbouring Syria.
Iraqi forces have made uneven progress since the operation to retake Mosul began on October 17. The territory they have retaken inside Mosul is just a small fraction of the city, which measures more than nine miles across.
Up to 1,600 civilians may have been loaded onto trucks and forcibly relocated from Hamam al-Alil to the IS-held town of Tal Afar earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Friday.
It warned that the captive civilians might be taken as far as Syria to be used as human shields. Another 150 families from Hamam al-Alil were moved to Mosul itself, the UN said.
Other civilians have embarked on their own harrowing journeys to escape the fighting.