Friday 24 March 2017

IS suicide bombers kill 11 workers at power plant near Kirkuk

Smoke rises in nearby Mosul as Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance towards the city, Iraq (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Smoke rises in nearby Mosul as Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance towards the city, Iraq (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Smoke rises in nearby Mosul as Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces advance towards the city, Iraq

Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George

Three Islamic State militants have stormed a power plant north of the city of Kirkuk, killing 11 workers, before blowing themselves up, Iraqi police have said.

Major Ahmed Kader Ali said the suicide bombers entered the facility early on Friday, took 10 workers hostage, and asked to be taken to the Iranians who worked there.

One of the workers took them to the Iranians before escaping. The militants then killed the Iranians and the other workers, and detonated their explosive vests when police arrived.

The attack took place in the town of Dibis, to the north of Kirkuk city, where another militant assault was under way.

Kirkuk is some 100 miles from the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have been waging a wide-scale offensive since Monday.

The attack happened as an American bomb disposal expert became the country's first combat fatality in the fight to retake Mosul. US officials said the service member died from wounds sustained in a roadside bomb explosion north of the besieged Iraqi city.

Iraqi displaced people, whose villages was liberated recently, return with their furniture, outside Mosul, Iraq (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqi displaced people, whose villages was liberated recently, return with their furniture, outside Mosul, Iraq (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, center, speaks to journalists in Khazer, Iraq (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqi displaced people, whose villages was liberated recently, return with their furniture and belongings, outside Mosul, Iraq (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

More than 100 US special operations forces are embedded with Iraqi units in the offensive and hundreds more are playing a support role in staging bases.

The American had been operating as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist in support of the Iraqi Kurdish force known as the peshmerga.

Roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices pose a particular danger to advancing Iraqi forces and the US advisers who are with them. The Islamic State group, which has occupied Mosul for more than two years, has prepared extensive defences in and around the city.

Meanwhile, as they charged toward the town of Bartella, nine miles from Mosul's outskirts, the Iraqi special forces faced another favoured weapon in the IS arsenal: armoured trucks packed with explosives and driven by suicide bombers.

The weapons offered a glimpse at what Iraqi forces can expect as they close in on the extremists' biggest urban bastion.

The pre-dawn assault on Bartella was part of a multi-pronged operation on eastern approaches to Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Attack helicopters strafed militant positions as they advanced amid a hail of gunfire.

The US-trained special forces, officially known as the Counter Terrorism Service, are widely seen as Iraq's most professional and least sectarian fighters and have served as the shock troops in previous campaigns against IS. They are expected to lead the charge into Mosul.

IS militants unleashed at least nine suicide car and truck bombs against the advancing troops, eight of which were destroyed before reaching their targets, while the ninth struck an armoured Humvee, Lt Col Muntadhar al-Shimmari said.

He did not give a casualty figure, but another officer said five Iraqi soldiers were wounded.

"After we break them in Bartella, everywhere else, they will crumble," said Maj Gen Fadhil Barwari. He said IS had few defences in the town, which was almost empty of civilians. "They just left some snipers and suicide car bombs," he said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish forces announced a simultaneous attack, with peshmerga fighters deployed on mountains north east of Mosul descending from their positions and charging towards the front line.

Under cover of mortar and gunfire, the Kurdish troops used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to fill trenches dug by the militants as part of their defence of the IS-held village of Barima, then advanced with their armoured vehicles toward the extremists' positions.

Military operations also appeared to be under way in the town of Bashiqa, north east of Mosul, where thick smoke could be seen billowing. A day earlier, Bashiqa was pounded by air strikes and mortar fire from peshmerga positions high above.

Lt Gen Talib Shaghati said the special forces had succeeded in retaking Bartella, but Iraqi forces were still facing stiff resistance inside the town shortly before he spoke, and past advances against IS elsewhere in Iraq have often proved fleeting.

After Bartella, Iraqi forces advancing towards Mosul will begin to hit villages and suburbs where civilians still live, a factor that will further complicate military operations that rely heavily on artillery and air strikes to clear territory.

Mosul is home to more than a million people, and rights groups fear a potential humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, prime minister Haider Al-Abadi said Mosul may fall sooner than expected. The campaign to retake the city, which began on Monday, had been expected to last weeks, if not months.

Speaking by video transmission to a conference in Paris focused on post-liberation planning for Mosul, he said the Iraqi "forces are currently pushing forward ... more quickly than we thought, and more quickly certainly than we established in our plan of campaign".

The Islamic State group captured Mosul and the surrounding area during a lightning advance across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.

Iraqi forces crumbled that summer, beating a humiliating retreat and leaving weapons and vehicles behind. But the special forces held together and fought back, and since then they have played a central role in retaking cities and towns from the extremist group.

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