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Iraq forces gain ground in Mosul despite fierce resistance

  • Published at 12:58 pm November 6th, 2016
Iraq forces gain ground in Mosul despite fierce resistance

Iraqi forces battled jihadists inside Mosul for the third day running Sunday while civilians risked their lives dodging bombs and snipers to slip out of the city.

The Islamic State group put up fierce resistance to defend the city it seized more than two years ago and also claimed responsibility for deadly suicide attacks further south.

The elite Counter-Terrorism Service has been spearheading the attack on the eastern front of the three-week-old offensive on Mosul, Iraq's largest military operation in years.

"Our forces are continuing to clear neighbourhoods including Al-Samah, Karkukli, Al-Malayeen and Shaqaq al-Khadra," CTS Staff Lieutenant General Abdelghani al-Assadi told AFP.

The jihadists have given up some of its bastions in Iraq and Syria with barely a fight in recent months but its men began the defence of their last Iraqi hub with anger.

"Resistance is very heavy and they have suffered major losses," Assadi said of IS.

Perilous escape

The assault allowed some civilians to flee the city, most of whose million-plus residents remained trapped inside, sheltering both from their jihadist rulers and incoming fire from government forces and US-led coalition aircraft. Some of the first civilians to manage to escape the city proper arrived at a camp near Khazir in Kurdish-controlled territory on Saturday. Abu Sara dodged gunfire, bombs, mortar rounds and coalition strikes to flee his neighbourhood of Al-Samah, such was his desperation to leave what many civilians who escaped IS rule describe as an open-air prison. "We walked several miles, taking with us only the clothes we were wearing and white flags we waved the entire way," said the 34-year-old, wearing a brown fake leather jacket.

While the corridors called for by aid groups to allow the safe passage of civilians have yet to materialise, arrivals in the displacement camps dotting the area have increased markedly.

The government said it had taken in 9,000 displaced people in the past two days.

The International Organization for Migration said a total of about 34,000 people had been displaced since the start of rhe offensive on October 17.

Relief organisations were fighting the clock to build up their shelter capacity ahead of the feared mass exodus from Mosul.

[caption id="attachment_29314" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Smoke rises from burning oil wells in Qayyarah, south of Mosul, on November 4, 2016, during operation by Iraqi forces to retake the main hub city from the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. / AFP PHOTO / Ahmad MOUSA Smoke rises from burning oil wells in Qayyarah, south of Mosul, on November 4, 2016, during operation by Iraqi forces to retake the main hub city from the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. AFP[/caption]

Suicide bombings

The jihadists, with an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 fighters in Mosul, could hold out for weeks and inflict heavy casualties on government forces but they are outnumbered about 10 to one.

The group's ability to hit back with ground offensives elsewhere appears to be gone and IS has responded with a string of diversionary attacks, including spectacular operations in Kirkuk and Rutba.

On Sunday, it claimed responsibility for three suicide attacks in Tikrit and Samarra, the two main cities in Salaheddin province north of Baghdad.

Iraqi officials spoke of only two bombers, one who detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle at the southern entrance to Tikrit, and another who blew up an ambulance in Samarra. Jassem al-Jbara, the head of Salaheddin province's security committee, said that the Tikrit attack killed 12 people and wounded 20, while six died and 12 more were injured in Samarra. IS identified two of the bombers as "Al-Moslawi" - a nom de guerre that would indicate they were from Mosul, though it could be a propaganda attempt to link militants from other areas with the ongoing battle for Iraq's second city. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has visited the Mosul front lines several times since the offensive started, has vowed to rid the country of IS by the end of the year. Retaking Mosul could effectively end the IS group's days as a land-holding force in Iraq and deal a death blow to the "caliphate" Baghdadi proclaimed in the city in June 2014.

Last town before Mosul

The assault on Hammam al-Alil, about 15km south of Mosul, targeted a force of at least 70 Islamic State fighters there, commander of the Mosul operations Major-General Najm al-Jabouri said. Jabouri said the assault began around 10am local time and some militants had tried to escape across the river, although others put up heavy resistance and the troops had thwarted three attempted suicide car bombings. "The battle is very important - it's the last town for us before Mosul," Jabouri told reporters. Iraqi helicopters were supporting the army, he said, backed also by jets from a US-led air coalition. He said the jihadists were using hundreds of people as human shields, although it was not clear how many civilians were left in the town. Before Islamic State swept in more than two years ago, Hammam al-Alil and outlying villages had a population of 65,000. As well as forcing residents to stay as they came under attack in Hammam al-Alil, Islamic State fighters retreating north in the last two weeks have forced thousands to march with them as cover from air strikes, villagers have told Reuters. The United Nations said the militants transported 1,600 abducted civilians from Hammam al-Alil to the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, on Tuesday and took another 150 families from the town to Mosul the next day. They told residents to hand over children, especially boys aged over nine, in an apparent recruitment drive for child soldiers, UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said. Jabouri said a man he described as a senior Islamic State figure, Ammar Salih Ahmed Abu Bakr, was killed by federal police - who are fighting with the army in Hammam al-Alil - as he tried to escape by car. Many of the remaining militants were non-Iraqis, he said. "There are at least 70 Daesh fighters in the town. The majority are foreign fighters, so they don't know where to go. They are just moving from place to place."
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