Saturday 17 March 2018

Iraqi forces advance into Mosul as Isil pushed back

Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) flash the sign of victory from the back of a truck as they drive towards the village of Umm Sijan, south of Mosul. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) flash the sign of victory from the back of a truck as they drive towards the village of Umm Sijan, south of Mosul. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A displaced Iraqi family flees after escaping from Islamic State controlled village of Abu Jarboa during clashes with IS militants near Mosul. Photo: Reuters
A Iraqi soldier stands near a checkpoint as smoke rises from burning oil fields in Qayara, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
Iraqi army soldiers warm themselves next to a fire near the Qayara air base, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
Displaced people who fled from Islamic State-held territory sit outside a mosque guarded by Iraqi soldiers in Shuwayrah, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP
Displace people stand on the back of a truck at a checkpoint near Qayara, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photo: AP

Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad

Iraqi special forces have made advances since entering the outskirts of Mosul on Monday, taking the state television building despite fierce resistance by Isil fighters who hold the city.

The advance marks the first time Iraqi troops have set foot in the city - Iraq's second largest - in more than two years.

Troops entered Gogjali, an area inside Mosul's city limits, and by noon were roughly 800 metres from the more built-up Karama district, according to Maj Gen Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces.

"The special forces have stormed in," he said. "Daesh (another term for Isil) is fighting back and have set up concrete blast walls to block off the Karama neighbourhood and our troops' advance."

Bombs have also been laid along the road into the city, he said.

Later, Maj Gen al-Aridi said the troops had taken the nearby state television building, the only one in the province, and that heavy fighting broke out when they tried to press on into built-up areas.

An Iraqi soldier shows a pamphlet which reads
An Iraqi soldier shows a pamphlet which reads "Wearing beards is compulsory, shaving is prohibited" along a street of the town of al-Shura, which was recaptured from Islamic State (IS) on Saturday, south of Mosul. Photo: Reuters

Mosul is the final Isil urban bastion in Iraq, the city from which it drove out a larger but demoralised Iraqi army in 2014 and declared a "caliphate" that stretched into Syria.

Its loss would be a major defeat for the jihadis, but with the closest Iraqi troops still some 10km from the city centre, much ground remains to be covered.

The battle opened up with Iraqi artillery, tank and machine gun fire on Isil positions on the edge of Gogjali, with the extremists responding with guided anti-tank missiles and small arms in an attempt to block the advance. Air strikes by the US-led coalition supporting the operation added to the fire hitting the district.

Spokesman Col John Dorrian said that the coalition, which coordinates all its attacks with the Iraqis, had been observing the battlefield and had noted that Isil forces could no longer move in large numbers.

An Iraqi special forces soldier shoulders a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Bazwaya (AP)
An Iraqi special forces soldier shoulders a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Bazwaya (AP)

"And when we see them come together where there are significant numbers, we will strike them and kill them," he said.

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Concerns over civilian casualties had led to air operations using precision munitions only, he added.

From the nearest village east of Mosul, Bazwaya, smoke could be seen rising from buildings in Gogjali, where shells and bombs had landed. Isil fighters also lit special fires to produce dark smoke in order to obscure the aerial view of the city.

Inside the village, white flags still hung from some buildings, put up a day earlier by residents eager to show they would not resist the Iraqi forces' advance. Some residents stood outside their homes, and children raised their hands with V-for-victory signs.

The families, estimated to number in the hundreds, will be evacuated from the village to a displaced persons camp, according to Brig Gen Haider Fadhil of the Iraqi special forces.

As the fighting raged, several of the newly displaced from Bazwaya could be seen carrying white flags and driving a herd of some 150 sheep toward the camp.

For more than two weeks, Iraqi forces and their Kurdish allies, Sunni tribesmen and Shia militias have been converging on Mosul from all directions to drive Isil from the city. Iraqi forces have made uneven progress in closing in on the city. Advances have been slower to the south, with government troops still 30km away. To the north are Kurdish forces and Iraqi army units, and Shia militias are sweeping toward the western approach in an attempt to cut off a final Isil escape route.

The Shia forces - Iran-backed troops known as the Popular Mobilisation Units - are not supposed to enter Mosul, given concerns that the battle for the Sunni-majority city could aggravate sectarian tensions.

Just behind the eastern front line, the army's ninth division has moved toward Mosul on the path cleared by the special forces, and was now approximately 4km from its eastern outskirts. The US military estimates Isil has 3,000-5,000 fighters in Mosul and another 1,500-2,500 in its outer defensive belt.

The total includes about 1,000 foreign fighters. They stand against an anti-Isil force which - including army units, militarised police, special forces and Kurdish fighters - totals more than 40,000 men.

As the Mosul offensive has pressed on, bombings have continued in the capital, Baghdad - part of sustained Isil efforts to destabilise the country.

Dozens have been killed since the push on Mosul started in apparent retaliation attacks, mostly claimed by Isil.

Violence is still rampant across the country, with killings worsening in October, the United Nations said.

In a monthly report released by the Assistance Mission for Iraq, it said 1,792 people had been killed in violence in Iraq in October, up from 1,003 the previous month. Around 1,120 of the dead were civilians.

The worst-hit city is Baghdad with 268 civilians killed and 807 wounded, while the militant-held Ninevah province comes next with 566 killed and 59 wounded.

The UN did not say whether the Mosul operation was directly related to the casualties in Ninevah, its surrounding province.

Meanwhile, Kurdish authorities detained a Japanese freelance journalist covering the fighting.

The Kyodo News agency said Kosuke Tsuneoka was reporting on the battle to recapture the city of Mosul.

He was being held by Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

Bodies of Isil fighters killed in Mosul have been shipped back to Raqqa and around 480 of its members have been killed in the fighting so far, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

At least 300 of the dead were child soldiers from the 'Lion Cubs of the Caliphate' - the jihadist group's youth wing, SOHR said.

"This will raise the death toll to at least 480 Syrian fighters killed in the ranks of Isil since the start of the battles in the Mosul area," SOHR said.

The 'Lion Cubs' are indoctrinated from a young age to serve Isil and forced to commit killings of prisoners and other acts of brutality to ready them for combat on behalf of the so-called "caliphate".

According to a video published online by Isil, life was normal inside the Karama district a day earlier.

Released by its Aamaq news agency, the footage from Karama showed residents insisting that life is normal and that "no apostates or Shiites" had entered the city.

Irish Independent

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