Iraqi forces facing ‘very complicated’ Mosul battle
London - Iraqi forces are facing an intricate urban battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in western Mosul despite the dwindling territory that the militants control in Iraq.
“It’s very complicated,” US Army Major-General Joseph Martin, head of ground forces for the coalition fighting ISIS, told Reuters. “The terrain literally changes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood… the nature of the enemy, how the population reacts.”
Iraqi forces have retaken much of Iraq’s second-largest city since October but have been trying since then to dislodge ISIS from the densely populated Old City in western Mosul, the militants’ last Iraqi stronghold.
“Iraqi security forces continue to progress as they liberate the western side of Mosul,” said Martin, who added that “it’s hard to tell” when ISIS would be defeated. ISIS was “very creative in exploiting the human element” by using hospitals, schools, churches, homes and mosques as hideouts or weapons caches, he said.
Iraqi officers said snipers have slowed advances in western Mosul. Daily suicide attacks and roadside bombs, along with mortars, have been among the lethal ISIS tactics in resisting the 100,000-strong Iraqi force backed by US airpower.
ISIS militants have killed dozens of civilians attempting to flee Mosul in recent days, hanging several bodies from electricity poles, witnesses said.
Two Iraqi army pilots were killed when their helicopter was shot down over western Mosul by ISIS, a military statement said.
ISIS controls less than 7% of Iraq, down from the 40% it held nearly three years ago, Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool said.
“As of March 31, they only held 6.8% of Iraqi territory,” said Rasool, the spokesman of the Joint Operations Command coordinating the anti-ISIS effort. ISIS militants control the towns of Qaim, Tal Afar and Hawija in Iraq.
Approximately 400,000 people are believed to have been trapped in western Mosul with UN camps filling with people fleeing the violence. More than 300,000 people have fled Mosul since the start of the offensive began in October last year, the office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq said.
Residents who have escaped Mosul say there was very little to eat other than flour mixed with water and boiled wheat grain.
There is a lack of medical resources to treat the large number of patients in eastern Mosul and ambulances ferrying patients outside the city are unable to cope with the number of trauma victims and the long distances needed to transfer patients for further treatment.
“The need for emergency medical care has risen drastically,” said Dr Isabelle Defourny, director of operations at Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
People fleeing western Mosul report a lack of infant formula, food and clean water. Conditions are expected to worsen because supply routes to the area have been cut off.
MSF is treating severely malnourished children who fled western Mosul. Children are also treated for diseases associated with malnutrition, which weakens the immune system, making them even more vulnerable.
“It’s a new thing in Iraq,” MSF project coordinator Isabelle Legall told Reuters. “Most of the (Iraqi) doctors have never seen it (malnutrition)”.
A specialist ward was opened recently to deal with the growing number of children, most of them younger than 6 months old, showing signs of malnutrition.
“Normally nutritional crises are much more common in Africa and not in this kind of country,” said Dr Rosanna Meneghetti, a paediatrician at an MSF-run hospital in Qayyara, about 60km south of Mosul. “We did not anticipate this”.
Many babies are taken to the hospital with respiratory problems such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Most of them from camps for the displaced, where cramped conditions enable viruses to spread.
Nationwide, more than half of Iraqi families are at risk of going hungry, said the World Food Programme (WFP), warning of “unprecedented levels of vulnerability” faced by the population due to years of conflict.
Most families in the country would no longer be able to feed themselves if basic food prices increased or fighting escalated, WFP said. “They can’t absorb any more shocks,” said WFP spokeswoman Dina El-Kassaby.
A study by WFP and the Iraqi government said 2.5% of the population — more than 800,000 people — go to bed hungry every night.
There are concerns that figure could increase because two-thirds of internally displaced people and more than half of Iraqis living in their homes have barely enough to feed themselves, El-Kassaby said.
Almost 75% of Iraqi children under the age of 15 work to help their families buy food instead of going to school, WFP said. The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies.