Iraq braces for Mosul’s toughest battle
London - Iraqi forces are readying for an offensive against the Old City in Mosul following the steady progress in their battle to seize the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold.
The battle for the Old City may see some of the toughest fighting in western Mosul. “The Old City is a very difficult area” of narrow streets and closely spaced houses, said Lieutenant-Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi of Iraq’s elite Rapid Response Division.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped in the Old City under ISIS, whose fighters have used civilians as human shields.
Iraqi forces, with the support of US-led air strikes, have recaptured a series of neighbourhoods in Mosul as well as the provincial government headquarters and the museum where ISIS militants infamously filmed themselves destroying priceless artefacts.
The current focus is on clearing newly retaken areas and defusing bombs in booby-trapped houses, said Mohammedawi.
Federal police said anti-ISIS forces were setting up defences in recaptured areas of Mosul.
“Berms and barriers were set up to protect (the) forces and they began search operations in Al-Dawasa and Al-Danadan and Al-Agaidat areas to find (ISIS) remnants to prepare for the completion of offensive operations,” said Lieutenant-General Raed Shakir Jawdat.
ISIS overran large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring a cross-border “caliphate” in his last public appearance at a Mosul mosque in July that year.
A US official said Baghdadi was no longer in Mosul and that the hunt for the enigmatic figure was being led by groups outside the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, including US special operations forces.
Iraqi forces began the massive operation to retake Mosul on October 17th, first recapturing its eastern side before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west. ISIS militants have fought back with suicide car bombs, roadside bombs, snipers and weaponised drones. The militant group had also staged tactical retreats to trap advancing Iraqi forces.
Iraqi forces in Mosul’s municipal complex said they were surprised by ISIS counter-attacks after the militants first withdrew with little resistance.
Commanders said the hasty advances were intended to give them the element of surprise but they struggled with conducting methodical urban operations under political and military pressure for a speedy wrap up to the Mosul war.
US officers estimated that as few as 500 ISIS militants remain in Mosul, pitted against a 100,000-strong force of Iraqi military units, Shia forces and Kurdish fighters, backed by the US-led coalition.
The fighting in the city’s western districts has forced more than 51,000 people to flee their homes, said the International Organisation for Migration.
Civilians trickled out of the area carrying their possessions in overstuffed suitcases.
“Judging by what has happened in eastern Mosul, rebuilding will be a slow process. Three months after their liberation, east Mosulites are getting fed up. They are still without running water and the only electricity comes from private generators,” the Economist wrote.
Medical and food supplies have dwindled and costs have soared, leaving many on barely a meal a day.
“We’re hearing reports of people eating bird feed inside western Mosul as they cannot afford the skyrocketing prices,” Karl Schembri, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Agence France- Presse.
Residents and medical workers say that the combined effect of malnutrition and the shortage of drugs is starting to kill the weakest.
Many of those who had fled the city did not fare much better.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces of detaining men and boys who have fled ISIS in Mosul even after they passed security clearances.
HRW said the KRG forces have detained more than 900 displaced men and boys between 2014 and late January 2017. Some were held for up to four months without communication or updates for their families.
“Enforced disappearances, which occur when security forces detain and then conceal the fate or whereabouts of a detainee, placing them outside the protection of the law, are violations of international human rights law and can be international crimes,” HRW said.