Iraqi forces make fresh gains in western Mosul

Sunday 23/04/2017
The long road to Mosul. Members of the Iraqi federal police flash the victory sign in western Mosul, on April 21. (AFP)

London - Iraqi forces retook two more neighbourhoods in western Mosul, tightening the noose around Islamic State (ISIS) mil­itants holed up in the Old City, commanders said.

“The forces completed the libera­tion of Al-Thawra neighbourhood,” Sabah al-Noman, spokesman for the elite Counterterrorism Service, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

An officer with federal police forces deployed in western Mosul confirmed that the neighbourhood, which lies just west of the Old City, had been retaken from ISIS.

The Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against ISIS nationwide said the Nasr neigh­bourhood was also retaken.

Raed Shakir Jawdat, the head of Iraq’s Federal Police, said in a state­ment that Iraqi forces had killed a senior ISIS operative, suspected to have been in charge of chemical weapons for the group in Mosul, in a missile strike in the Zanjili neigh­bourhood.

A US official said Iraqi forces working alongside US and Austral­ian military advisers had been tar­geted in an ISIS attack that used a low-level chemical agent in west­ern Mosul. US Army Major-General Joseph Martin said nobody died in the attack.

Iraqi forces last October launched their largest operation in years to retake Mosul. They captured the side of the city east of the Tigris River in January and began a push on ISIS fighters in western Mosul, which is more densely populated and has seen fierce fighting.

Heavy exchanges of gunfire and mortar rounds could be heard from the neighbourhoods facing the Old City across the Tigris, which bisects Mosul into western and eastern sides.

Iraqi Federal Police forces “are engaged in difficult, house-to-house clashes with [ISIS] fighters inside the Old City,” a media officer from the units told Reuters.

Drones are used to help direct air strikes on militants dug in amid ci­vilians, he said.

ISIS “fighters are within range. We’re tracking them day and night,” Salah al-Zuheiri, a sniper with the Iraqi Federal Police who had taken up a position 300 metres from the Al-Nuri Mosque, told AFP.

ISIS, however, also has snipers. “A few days ago, a jihadist fired at me but he hit the wall behind me,” said Zuheiri. “I located his position and shot him down quickly.”

On the west bank, Iraqi forces control southern neighbourhoods and are slowly surrounding the Old City, which has narrow streets that are expected to make military op­erations difficult.

An estimated 400,000 civilians are believed to be in the area, un­willing or unable to leave because any escape would be too dangerous or because militants are using them as human shields.

The United Nations says some 600,000 civilians remain in ISIS-held sectors, which include two-thirds of the Old City.

The war between ISIS and Iraqi forces is taking a heavy toll on ci­vilians trapped in the city, with se­verely malnourished babies reach­ing hospitals in government-held areas.

The fighting has killed several thousands of civilians and fight­ers on both sides, aid organisations said. More than 327,000 people have fled in the past six months. Nearly 500,000 people have left their homes since October.

The battle could turn into the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the war against ISIS, the United Na­tions warned.

“If there is a siege and hundreds of thousands of people don’t have water and don’t have food, they will be at enormous risk,” UN hu­manitarian coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters.

“We could be facing a humanitar­ian catastrophe, perhaps the worst in the entire conflict,” said Grande. “Families… tell us that they are be­ing shot at as they are escaping. It’s terrifying.”

The Iraqi Army has built a pon­toon bridge over the Tigris south of Mosul, after flooding blocked all crossing points. The bridge is being used as an escape route for families fleeing the fighting.

Long queues formed at the bridge with families crossing in public buses, trucks and taxis.

“The sheer volume of civilians still fleeing Mosul city is stag­gering,” said Grande. “Mosul has pushed us to our operational limits.”