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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.

Iraqi forces retake series of IS villages

2017-01-06

BAGHDAD – Baghdad’s forces retook a series of villages from the Islamic State group in western Iraq as they fought to oust it from territory near the Syrian border, officers said Friday.

The operation, which aims to recapture the towns of Rawa, Aanah and Al-Qaim — the last main populated areas held by IS in Anbar province — was launched on Thursday.

“Our military units liberated seven villages from Daesh control between the town of Haditha and the town of Aanah,” said Staff Major General Qassem al-Mohammedi, the head of the Jazeera Operations Command, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Staff Major General Noman Abed al-Zobai, the commander of the 7th Division, said that seven villages had been recaptured, and government forces had reached the outskirts of Al-Sagra, an area southeast of Aanah.

Iraqi forces have retaken Ramadi and Fallujah, the two main cities in Anbar province, but security in recaptured areas remains precarious.

Anbar is a vast province that stretches from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad, and has a long history of insurgent activity.

IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained much of the territory they lost.

They are now fighting to recapture Mosul, the last Iraqi city where IS holds signficant ground.

But the recapture of major population centres held by IS will not mark the end of the conflict against them. The jihadists are still able to carry out frequent bombings in government-controlled areas, and are likely to turn increasingly to such tactics as they lose territory.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80699.

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/.

Syrian army retakes town of Palmyra as IS defenses crumble

March 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s military announced on Thursday it has fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group as the militants’ defenses crumbled and IS fighters fled in the face of artillery fire and intense Russia-backed airstrikes.

The development marks the third time that the town — famed for its priceless Roman ruins and archaeological treasures IS had sought to destroy — has changed hands in one year. It was also the second blow for the Islamic State group in Syria in a week, after Turkish backed opposition fighters seized the Syrian town of al-Bab from the militants on Feb. 23, following a grueling three month battle. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni extremist group is fighting for survival in its last urban bastion in the western part of the city of Mosul.

For the Syrian government, the news was a welcome development against the backdrop of peace talks underway with the opposition in Switzerland. “You are all invited to visit the historic city of Palmyra and witness its beauty, now that it has been liberated,” the Damascus envoy to the U.N.-mediated talks, Bashar al-Ja’afari, told reporters in Geneva.

“Of course, counterterrorism operations will continue until the last inch of our territory is liberated from the hands of these foreign terrorist organizations, which are wreaking havoc in our country,” he added.

The Damascus military statement said troops gained full control of the desert town in central Syria following a series of military operations carried out with the help of Russian air cover and in cooperation with “allied and friendly troops” — government shorthand for members of Lebanese militant Hezbollah group who are fighting along Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

IS defenses around Palmyra had begun to erode on Sunday, with government troops reaching the town’s outskirts on Tuesday. The state SANA news agency reported earlier that government troops had entered the town’s archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, around mid-day, then the town itself, as IS militants fled the area.

This is the Syrian government’s second campaign to retake Palmyra. It seized the town from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later. Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed by his defense minister that Syrian troops had gained control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes.

The Syrian government’s push has relied on ground support from Hezbollah and Russian air cover, according to Hezbollah’s media outlets. Archeologists have decried what they say is extensive damage to its ruins.

Drone footage released by Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier this month showed new damage to the facade of Palmyra’s Roman-era theater and the adjoining Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four columns each at the center of the colonnaded road leading to the theater.

A 2014 report by a U.N. research agency disclosed satellite evidence of looting while the ruins were under Syrian military control. Opposition factions have also admitted to looting the antiquities for funds.

IS militants have twice used the town’s Roman theater as a stage for mass killings, most recently in January, when they shot and beheaded a number of captives they said had tried to escape their December advance. Other IS killings were said to have taken place in the courtyard of the Palmyra museum and in a former Russian base in the town.

The developments in Palmyra came against the backdrop of the talks in Geneva, which have been without any tangible breakthroughs so far. Diplomats and negotiators have set their sights on modest achievements in the latest round, after a week of discussions centering on setting an agenda for future talks.

On Thursday, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura held another round of meetings with both the government delegation and opposition groups. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters Wednesday that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.”

After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism is also on the table, he had said. Russia is a key sponsor of Assad’s government. A top Syrian opposition negotiator, Nasr al-Hariri, said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony on Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics. In Turkey, the country’s foreign minister said that with the completion of an operation to retake the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, Turkish troops will head to the Syrian town of Manbij next, to oust U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists and a threat to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that Turkey would not shy away from attacking the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces, which captured Manbij last year after weeks of deadly fighting with IS.

He renewed calls for the new U.S. administration not to support the Kurdish forces. Cavusoglu stressed that an operation to take Manbij had not started yet, but acknowledged that skirmishes between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish fighters may have occurred.

That front line in northern Syria was further complicated by a concurrent announcement by the Syrian Kurdish side on Thursday that they had agreed with Russia to withdraw from some of the territory between al-Bab and Manbij, to make room for a buffer.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line with rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River. This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Cavusoglu denied any such agreement was reached. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government. The Turkish and Syrian authorities have long regarded each other with thinly-veiled hostility.

Soguel reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

IS advances on terrified citizens of Syria’s Deir Ezzor

2017-01-18

DEIR EZZOR – As the Islamic State group closes in on Syria’s Deir Ezzor, residents said they are terrified of falling victim to the mass killings for which the jihadists have become infamous.

Besieged by IS since early 2015, the government-held third of Deir Ezzor city is home to an estimated 100,000 people.

Since Saturday, IS has steadily advanced in a fresh assault on the city, sparking fears among residents of widespread atrocities.

“Civilians in the city are terrified and anxious, afraid that IS will enter the city since they accuse us of being ‘regime thugs’,” said Abu Nour, 51.

He spoke by phone from inside the city, roughly one kilometer (less than one mile) from approaching IS forces.

Deir Ezzor sits in the oil-rich eastern province of the same name, most of which is controlled by IS.

Abu Nour said that residents were haunted by previous abductions and mass executions carried out by IS in the broader province.

“The way they killed them is stuck in people’s minds here,” he said.

IS is notorious for using particularly gruesome methods to kill military rivals and civilians alike, including beheading, lighting them on fire, or launching rockets at them from just meters (feet) away.

As the group advanced on ancient city Palmyra in 2015, it killed dozens of civilians, accusing them of being regime loyalists, then staged mass executions of government troops in the city’s theater.

According to one activist group, IS has already begun executing Syrian soldiers it took captive during the clashes in Deir Ezzor.

IS executed 10 soldiers “by driving over them with tanks”, said Omar Abu Leila, an activist from Deir Ezzor 24, which publishes news on the city.

“If IS seizes regime-held neighborhoods, it could carry out massacres. This is a huge source of concern for us,” he said.

– ‘Hunger will ravage us’ –

In its push for Deir Ezzor, the jihadist group has launched salvos of rockets on the neighborhoods it besieged.

“Shells have rained down on us for five days,” Umm Inas, another resident, said by phone.

“There’s very little movement in the street because people are afraid of these shells, which spare no one,” the 45-year-old said.

She warned the humanitarian situation was getting increasingly dire, after the World Food Program said on Tuesday it could no longer carry out air drops over the city because of the fighting.

“If the situation continues like this, hunger will ravage us. The air drops were our only lifeline,” Umm Inas said.

The WFP has been dropping humanitarian aid into Deir Ezzor since April 2016, and the government-held area is the only place in Syria where the agency has permission for the drops.

In the past, government and Russian warplanes have also delivered desperately needed humanitarian aid to the city via air drops.

A medical source in the city said more than 100 civilians had been wounded in the recent fighting, and some were taken north to the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

“Some intractable cases were flown to Qamishli because they need special treatment that isn’t available in Deir Ezzor,” the source said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80942.

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/.

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