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Iraq makes swift territorial gains against IS in Mosul

January 15, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces have won a string of swift territorial gains in Mosul in the fight against the Islamic State group after months of slow progress, with a senior officer on Saturday laying claim to a cluster of buildings inside Mosul University and another edge of a bridge.

Iraqi forces now control the eastern sides of three of the city’s five bridges that span the Tigris River connecting Mosul’s east to west. Warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition bombed the city’s bridges late last year in an effort to isolate IS fighters in the city’s east by disrupting resupply routes.

At Mosul University, senior commanders said Iraqi forces had secured more than half of the campus Saturday amid stiff resistance, but clashes were ongoing into the afternoon. Iraqi forces entered the university from the southeast Friday morning and by nightfall had secured a handful of buildings, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil and Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi said on a tour of the university Saturday.

“We watched all the IS fighters gather in that building, so we blew it up,” said special forces Sgt. Maj. Haytham Ghani pointing to one of the blackened technical college buildings where charred desks could be seen inside. “You can still see some of their corpses.”

Thick clouds of black smoke rose from the middle of the sprawling complex Saturday morning. By afternoon, clashes had intensified with volleys of sniper and mortar fire targeting the advancing Iraqi forces. Convoys of Iraqi Humvees snaked through the campus, pausing for artillery and airstrikes to clear snipers perched within classrooms, dormitories and behind the trees that line the campus streets.

IS fighters overran Mosul in the summer of 2014, announcing from there their self-styled “caliphate” after taking a large swath of Iraq and Syria in a lightning surge. Access to the city’s central bank, a large taxable civilian population and nearby oilfields quickly made IS the world’s wealthiest terrorist group.

Yet even as a punishing campaign of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes has pushed the militants underground, IS leaders continued to use Mosul as a key logistical hub for planning meetings. If recaptured by the Iraqi forces, IS territory in Iraq that once stretched across a third of the country would be reduced to small pockets in the north and west that troops will likely be able to mop up relatively quickly.

The massive operation to retake Mosul from IS was launched in October. Since then Iraqi forces have slowly clawed back more than a third of the city. IS maintains has tight control of the city’s western half where Iraqi forces will likely encounter another wave of heavy IS resistance. The west of the city is home to some of Mosul’s densest neighborhoods and an estimated 700,000 civilians.

As Iraqi forces have closed in on the Tigris that roughly divides Mosul into eastern and western halves, their pace has quickened. IS defenses in the city’s east appear to be thinning and unlike in the surrounding neighborhoods, Iraqi officers said they believe Mosul University and recently retaken government buildings are largely empty of civilians — allowing them to use air cover more liberally.

Iraqi soldiers at Mosul University said while they were still coming under heavy small arms fire, IS resistance was significantly less than they faced during the first weeks of the Mosul operation. “We were targeted with only four car bombs where before (IS) would send 20 in one day,” special forces Lt. Zain al-Abadeen said. “And they aren’t armored like before, they’re just using civilian cars.”

Medics operating a small field hospital in eastern Mosul said civilian casualties have dropped significantly over the past three days as Iraqi forces moved into government complexes like the university rather than dense civilian neighborhoods.

Also Saturday, IS launched its biggest assault in a year on government-held areas of the contested Syrian city of Deir el-Zour in an attempt to maintain a grip on the eastern stretch of the neighboring country where the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa lies.

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Battling IS, Iraq troops reach bank of Tigris River in Mosul

January 09, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi troops in Mosul have battled their way to the Tigris River running through the center of town, marking a milestone in the nearly three-month-old offensive aimed at reclaiming the northern city from Islamic State militants.

Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah said special forces reached the river late Sunday and now control the eastern side of one of the city’s five bridges, all of which have been disabled by U.S.-led airstrikes in support of the offensive.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the recent advances were “big achievements for all the factions of the Iraqi security forces.” “Thank God, our forces are liberating neighborhood after neighborhood,” he said Monday in a joint press conference with his Jordanian counterpart in Baghdad.

In Mosul, Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the special forces told The Associated Press that troops were battling IS in the Baladiyat and Sukar neighborhoods after driving the extremists out of Muthana and Rifaq the day before. He said Iraqi forces repelled an overnight attack, killing 37 militants, without elaborating.

The Mosul offensive resumed last month after a two-week lull due to stiff IS resistance and bad weather. Since then, Iraqi forces have recaptured new areas in the city’s eastern half after receiving enforcements.

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and the extremist group’s last major urban bastion in the country. Iraqi special forces have done most of the fighting within the city, while Iraqi troops have advanced on it from different sides. Kurdish forces and Shiite militias have driven IS from surrounding areas and sought to cut off militant escape routes.

Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, when the extremists swept across much of northern and western Iraq. Iraqi forces have gradually retaken most of that territory over the past three years, and outside of Mosul the militants are largely confined to smaller towns and villages.

Some in Mosul wary of return of Iraq’s government

December 31, 2016

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — The 19-year-old resident of Mosul pulled up his shirt and showed a festering wound on his back. It came, he said, from Iraqi troops who detained him for three days and beat him, trying to get him to confess to belong to the Islamic State group.

His story and similar stories by others only deepen worries among many of Mosul’s mainly Sunni residents over what happens when the extremist group is defeated and Baghdad’s Shiite-led government resumes control.

Almost all those fleeing the city say they are relieved to see the end of the Sunni extremists’ grip. But they also have bad memories of Baghdad’s rule in the past. Mosul’s Sunnis long complained that the Shiite-dominated security forces treated them with suspicion and targeted them in indiscriminate crackdowns. They say the government intentionally neglect them, focusing on Shiite areas in the south, leaving Iraq’s second largest city undeveloped and economically stagnant.

Mohammed Ayad said he was detained by troops earlier this month when he sneaked from his home neighborhood, which is under IS control, across the Tigris River into a district recaptured by the military. He intended to buy cigarettes to sell back in his neighborhood, where IS bans smoking.

“They arrested me while sleeping at friend’s house on the east side,” he said. “They suspected me when I showed them my ID that says I live on the other side,” said Ayad. His interrogators beat him, asking him repeatedly when he joined IS. After they released him, he went to a camp of displaced people south of Mosul.

Several other Mosul residents at the camp said Federal Police, a Shiite-dominated force, barred them from returning to their homes in recaptured areas, now that they are relatively safe. A group of Sunnis who fled the recently freed town of Tal Abta, west of Mosul, said they too were barred by Shiite militias from returning.

“I feel like a third class citizen, like an Indian who will now have to live in a reservation,” said one bearded Mosul resident who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. “It is like they jailed us here,” he said of the camp.

There have been no reports of major or systematic abuse of Mosul residents by the military or security forces, which have been fighting since October to recapture the city. That’s a contrast to other former IS-held areas, where Shiite fighters are accused of pushing out or otherwise abusing Sunnis. The military denies torturing suspects and insists no one is denied permission to return to their homes.

But there is a recognition that Baghdad needs to reach out to Sunnis. “I really cannot blame them for being apprehensive about the return of government rule,” said a top military commander in Mosul, who agreed to discuss the subject in return for anonymity.

“It is their right to feel that way. Before Daesh, there was too much corruption, and the security forces did nothing to help people,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been sending reconciliatory messages to Iraq’s minority Sunnis, speaking of a country reunited by the fight against IS. “Societal reconciliation is the appropriate answer to Daesh,” he said recently.

The military in Mosul has reached out to residents with goodwill gestures, including distributing food and water and treating wounded or ailing residents in their field hospitals. They have helped those wishing to leave the city. Children flash the “V’ for victory signs to soldiers and yell “Mansoureen,” or “may you be victorious,” as they drive by in their Humvees.

“No matter how many times I say ‘thank you’ I can never give you your due,” one woman told a senior army general Thursday as he toured her frontline Mosul neighborhood. But there is also mutual suspicion and apprehension. Faced with consistent IS bombing and shootings in recaptured areas, the military fears sympathizers and sleeper cells among the population.

“All a Daesh member has to do is take off his clothes and shave his beard and he becomes a regular citizen” said the military commander in Mosul. “That’s why we cannot drop our guard.” The army’s security measures with the population don’t help ease any ill-feeling.

Every day, hundreds of men, women, children and elderly fleeing the city wait for hours in the biting cold by a main road outside Mosul while security officials run their names through a database for any possible IS links.

There are no chairs or benches and nothing to shelter them from rain and wind. A shortage of buses means that most of those cleared are loaded onto army trucks, where they stand with nothing to hold on except each other, to be taken to camps.

Conditions are tough for those who remain in recaptured Mosul neighborhoods as well. Piles of trash are everywhere and green sewage water runs on the side of many streets. Water and power are still out.

Some residents close off their streets with makeshift barriers against suicide car bombs, and many motorists still fly a white flag, signs of the fragile security. Some 120,000 people have fled Mosul since the offensive began. The resources of the cash-strapped government are limited. It is trying to provide medical care, food, water and heating fuel to those staying put in the city and those who fled. But distribution has been chaotic, leaving some without, and it excludes residents of areas close to the frontline.

Mosul hospital clerk Waad Amin said he’s glad the extremists are gone. While he’s wary of the government, “No matter what, they are still better than Daesh,” he said. But “it is so bad here, it’s beyond description,” he said of government-held parts of Mosul. The 53-year-old father of six works in a government clinic and hasn’t been paid for nearly two years.

Amin is also worried that a wave of score-settling will break out among residents. Security forces have to keep control, but at the same time not get dragged in by informants wrongly accusing others of being IS members, he said.

“The government needs to have a security outpost in every neighborhood. If not, the situation will be very dire. They cannot leave us to kill each other, as they did before Daesh took the city.” Mosul long had a reputation as a bastion of Islamic militancy. Before IS captured it in 2014, the group’s fighters operated freely in some areas, attacking security forces and oil facilities. Militants ran protection rackets, and local government corruption was rampant. Authorities were seen as failing to dealing effectively with criminals and militants.

Ahmed Mohammed Hussein, a 52-year-old Mosul University employee, blames those government failures for the IS takeover of the city in June 2014. It has left him bitter and suspicious ever since. He spoke in a camp for the displaced in the northern city of Irbil, where he fled with his family. Nearby, his wife stood in line with other women to receive heating oil rations.

“If they come back and wipe away my tears, pat me on the head and help me get back my life, then they are all welcome,” he said of the government. “But they will not be welcome if it’s all going to be about marginalization again.”

Iraqi troops resume Mosul fight after 2-week lull

December 29, 2016

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi troops backed by U.S.-led airstrikes pushed deeper into eastern Mosul on Thursday in a multi-pronged assault after a two-week lull in the operation to retake the Islamic State-held city.

Elite special forces pushed into the Karama and Quds neighborhoods, while army troops and federal police advanced into nearby Intisar, Salam and Sumor neighborhoods. Smoke rose across the city as explosions and machine gun fire echoed through the streets.

Stiff resistance by the militants, civilians trapped inside their houses and bad weather have slowed advances in the more than two-month-old offensive to recapture Iraq’s second largest city, the extremist group’s last urban bastion in the country. It is the biggest Iraqi military operation since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, commander of the special forces in eastern Mosul, said his forces have been bolstered by reinforcements and are now less than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Tigris River, which slices the city in half. A U.S.-led coalition airstrike this week destroyed the last remaining bridge over the river.

The special forces, officially known as the Counter Terrorism Service, have done most of the fighting, pushing in from the east. But regular army troops on the city’s southeast and northern edges, as well as militarized federal police farther west, have not moved in weeks, unable to penetrate the city.

The troops have faced grueling urban fighting, often house to house against IS militants who have had more than two years to dig in and prepare. Even in districts that have been recaptured, Iraqi troops have faced surprise attacks, shelling and car bombs. The extremists have launched more than 900 car bombs against Iraqi troops in and around Mosul. Al-Saadi said 260 targeted his men.

He said he expected Iraqi forces would drive IS from Mosul and the rest of Nineveh province within three months. Iraqi leaders had previously vowed to drive the extremists from Mosul by the end of the year.

IS captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, when it swept across much of northern and central Iraq, and the group’s leader declared the establishment of its self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.

The city is still home to around a million people. Some 120,000 have fled since the operation began on Oct. 17, according to the United Nations.

Why the Mosul offensive against IS has slowed to a stalemate

By Paul Rogers, University of Bradford

Dec. 20, 2016

Given the appalling destruction and loss of life, the siege of eastern Aleppo has held the world’s attention for weeks. But across the border in Iraq, developments in the city of Mosul may turn out to be just as crucial for the long-term future of the Middle East.

When the operation to take the city from the so-called Islamic State started in mid-October 2016, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hoped that the operation would be complete by the end of the year. Instead, the war over Mosul has just entered its third month with no end in sight. Some Iraqi military sources are resigned to a conflict that could last through to summer 2017.

At the start of November, after two weeks of rapid progress, prospects looked good for government forces. But the optimism of the early days has now given way to what looks very much like a stalemate. Depending on which source you consult, it seems Iraqi government forces have taken between a sixth and a quarter of the city from IS but are now finding further progress remarkably difficult, in the process suffering serious casualties.

How has it come to this? In part, it’s because IS has spent more than two years intensively preparing for an assault that was bound to happen at some stage. As soon as the U.S.-led air war started in August 2014, its sheer intensity made it obvious that the intention was to destroy the group altogether. Faced with that threat, the IS paramilitary leadership began to prepare for just the sort of conflict we’re seeing now – even to the extent of establishing remarkably sophisticated production lines for the manufacture of a range of armaments.

They also created an astonishing network of underground tunnels, far more complex than even the Iraqi intelligence specialists had expected, coupled with the assembling of hundreds of young men prepared to deliver suicide bombs. All the while, IS has been pounded across Syria and Iraq in an extraordinarily intensive coalition air war that the Pentagon claims has killed 50,000 of its fighters. In these circumstances, its resilience in Mosul is turning out to be formidable.

As of now, nine weeks into the war, IS is believed still to have some 5,000 personnel available in Mosul, broadly the same as at the start and with those killed being replaced by new fighters. They are facing a complex force centered on the Iraqi Army but including numerous militias. An earlier article reported that the forces include:

Iraqi special forces, fronting much less well-trained regular Iraqi Army units. In addition there are Iraqi Shia militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Turkish Army units, American, French, British and possibly Australian special forces, American and French combat troops and scores of strike aircraft and helicopter gunships.

The forces ranged against IS number at least 60,000 – and yet the group is able to hold out. Apart from the extent of its preparations and its paramilitaries’ utter determination to fight to the end, there’s another reason for this: the nature of the forces they face. And at the core of those forces are the Iraqi special forces mentioned above.

Ground down

After IS captured the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and especially Mosul, the U.S. Army started intensively rearming and retraining the Iraqi Army, intensifying a program that had stretched over a decade.

Some 35,000 troops have been through the system, but the heaviest emphasis has been on the 1st Special Operations Brigade, also known as the counter-terror force and more popularly within Iraq as the Golden Brigade. Now known as the Golden Division because of its expansion to some 10,000 troops, it is intended to be non-sectarian, well-led and far less subject to corruption and favoritism than the more regular units.

The operation that started in eastern Mosul more than two months ago involved the Golden Division acting as the spearhead of the Iraqi forces moving through the outer districts of the city to the more densely populated areas close to the river and the heartland of western Mosul. The intention has been to clear districts and then hand over to regular army units who would maintain control while the Golden Division would move on.

This has worked to an extent – but with two huge problems, neither of which appears to have been foreseen.

First is IS’s network of tunnels, through which IS paramilitaries have literally gone to ground. Its paramilitaries re-emerge when regular soldiers arrive to control districts, harrying them in rapid raids, often in the early hours of the morning, before disappearing back down the tunnels. The army units aren’t just suffering serious casualties; some are in a near-permanent state of sleeplessness, with morale and combat effectiveness suffering.

A second and even bigger problem is that even as the Golden Division makes incremental progress, it’s taking serious losses in the process. As Politico reported:

With the division suffering “horrific” casualties every day, senior U.S. Centcom officers are worried that the grinding battle is slowly destroying the division itself. If that happens, which appears likely, Iraq will lose its best guarantee against civil war – the only force capable of keeping the peace when Iraq’s sectarian divisions, temporarily dampened by having to fight a common enemy, re-emerge.

Mosul may well fall to government forces some time in early 2017, but the grueling work of getting it back could cripple the one unit of the Iraqi Army that could help prevent a civil war. It would be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Opinion/2016/12/20/Why-the-Mosul-offensive-against-IS-has-slowed-to-a-stalemate/7471482264542/.

Iraq: Daesh reverse army assault in Mosul

December 7, 2016

Daesh militants have managed to force Iraqi soldiers to withdraw from districts in southeast Mosul today, less than a day after Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) claimed to have made advances towards the Tigris River, sources including an army officer and Amaq news agency have said.

The fighting came after the army’s campaign commander for the Mosul operation said soldiers surged into the city and took over the Al-Salam hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris River which divides eastern and western Mosul.

Yesterday’s apparent rapid advance was thanks to an apparent change in military tactics after more than a month of grueling fighting in the east and southeast of the city, in which the army has sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block.

However, the new tactics have now turned out to have been undone by Daesh ambush tactics that drew ISF units into areas before subjecting them to fierce counterattacks.

Attacking ISF were exposed, and Daesh’s Amaq news agency said today that some units were surrounded. It said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the hospital, killing 20 soldiers. Eight armored personnel carriers (APCs) were also destroyed in the fighting that led to an Iraqi withdrawal, Amaq said.

There was no official Iraqi military comment on the fighting but the army officer, whose forces were involved in the clashes, said they had come under multiple attacks by suicide car bombers in the Al-Wahda district where the hospital is located.

“We managed to make a swift advance on Tuesday in Al-Wahda but it seems that Daesh fighters were dragging us to an ambush and they managed later to surround some of our soldiers inside the hospital,” he told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said an armoured regiment and counter terrorism units, backed by US-led air strikes, were sent to support the stranded troops early today and had opened up a route out of the neighborhood.

“They have secured the position, evacuated the wounded and pulled out the destroyed military vehicles from around the hospital,” he said, adding that they were coming under fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Amaq said it attacked the relief convoy as it advanced in the Sumer district, south of Al-Wahda near the outer edge of the city. This led to the convoy being forced to withdraw, in addition to the losses suffered by the ISF in the Al-Salam hospital.

Iraqi forces and allies numbering 100,000 men have been battling for seven weeks to crush Daesh fighters in Mosul, now estimated to be around 3,000 men strong. The city was seized by the militants in 2014 and is the largest in Iraq or Syria under their control.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161207-iraq-daesh-reverse-army-assault-in-mosul/.

Battle for IS-held Mosul nears ancient site

By W.G. Dunlop with Delil Souleiman in Ain Issa, Syria

Baghdad (AFP)

Nov 10, 2016

The battle for Iraq’s second city Mosul neared the remains of ancient Nimrud on Thursday, as the offensive against the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold Raqa was hampered by a sandstorm.

Backed by a US-led coalition, Iraqi forces and a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance are advancing on Mosul and Raqa in separate assaults aimed at driving IS from its last major bastions.

The coalition, which launched air strikes against IS two years ago, is looking to deal a fatal blow to the self-styled “caliphate” the jihadists declared in mid-2014.

Launched on October 17, the Iraqi offensive has seen federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters advance on Mosul from the east, south and north, pushing inside the eastern city limits last week.

On Thursday the military said troops and allied militia were moving forward on two IS-held villages near Nimrud, which is some 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Mosul.

“Units of the 9th Armored Division and the Hashed al-Ashaeri (tribal militia) are beginning to advance to liberate the villages of Abbas Rajab and Al-Nomaniyah, toward Nimrud,” the Joint Operations Command said, later announcing that Abbas Rajab had been retaken.

Nimrud was the one of the great centers of the ancient Middle East. Founded in the 13th century BC, it became the capital of the Assyrian empire, whose rulers built vast palaces and monuments that have drawn archaeologists for more than 150 years.

– Third of the way to Raqa –

In April last year, IS posted video on the internet of its fighters sledgehammering monuments before planting explosives around the site and blowing it up.

It was part of a campaign of destruction against heritage sites under jihadist control that also took in ancient Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul, Hatra in the desert to the south and Palmyra in neighboring Syria.

IS says the ancient monuments are idols that violate the teachings of its extreme form of Sunni Islam.

In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said their advance on Raqa was being held back by a sandstorm that had hit the desert province.

“The situation is dangerous today because there is no visibility due to a desert sandstorm,” an SDF commander told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We fear that Daesh will take advantage of this to move in and launch a counter-attack,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Speaking in Ain Issa, the main staging point for the operation some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Raqa, the commander said the sandstorm was also impeding visibility for coalition warplanes.

The SDF launched the offensive on Saturday and has been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqa.

The commander said SDF forces advancing south from Ain Issa and Suluk were close to converging at a position some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Raqa.

“We have been able to cover a third of the distance that separated us from Raqa,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said, adding that 15 villages and hamlets had been taken.

– Thousands flee homes –

Ahmed said thousands of civilians had fled their homes since the start of the assault and pleaded for international assistance.

“More than 5,000 displaced people have arrived in regions liberated and secured by our forces. They are coming from combat zones through a corridor we opened for them,” she said.

“We need international help because our capacities are limited and, with winter coming, there is no camp to host them,” she said.

Dozens of families have been seen fleeing towards SDF lines in recent days.

Many have been arriving in trucks and cars around Ain Issa, loaded down with belongings and in some cases with livestock including cows and sheep.

Raqa had a population of some 240,000 before the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011 but more than 80,000 people have since fled there from other parts of the country.

Mosul is much bigger, home to more than a million people, and more than 45,000 people have fled since the offensive began.

Aid workers have expressed fears of a major humanitarian crisis once fighting begins in earnest inside the city, where IS is expected to use civilians as human shields.

Rights groups have also raised concerns for fleeing civilians, amid accusations of abuses by some Iraqi forces.

Amnesty International called Thursday on the Iraqi government to investigate the killings of six residents south of Mosul who it said were executed by men in federal police uniforms during the offensive.

Iraq’s federal police issued a statement denying its forces had been involved in extrajudicial killings.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Battle_for_IS-held_Mosul_nears_ancient_site_999.html.

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