Iraqi forces resume offensive to capture western Mosul

Sunday 26/02/2017
An Iraqi federal police member stands on top of an armoured vehicle at a liberated part of Abu Saif village south of Mosul, on February 21st. (Reuters)

London - Iraqi forces launched an opera­tion to retake the portions of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris River, four months into a broad offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the northern Iraqi city.

The battle for Mosul, backed by the US-led coalition, has driven ISIS militants from the eastern half of the city.

The spokesman of the Joint Mili­tary Operation Command, Iraqi Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, told the Associated Press that near­ly 123 have been taken south of Mosul since the push started on February 19th.

Iraqi troops fully control the stra­tegical hill of Abu Saif overlooking the Mosul airport as well as the Hamam al-Alil intersection on the main highway into the city, Rasool said.

Elite Iraqi forces have joined the regular army and the security forc­es on the ground, he added.

Iraqi federal police later pushed their way into the perimeter of Mo­sul International Airport, taking control of the runway, police offi­cials said.

Iraqi state TV broadcast footage showing Iraqi jets pounding ISIS positions, vehicles and personnel in Mosul’s western half. The report did not say when the air strikes took place.

Iraqi forces in Abu Saif said they were targeted with at least four large car bombs and as many as five other car bombs were destroyed in air strikes.

Iraqi forces also said Abu Saif was almost empty when they retook it. As they pushed towards western Mosul they said they expected to encounter more civilians, which will make it more difficult to use artillery and air strikes to clear ter­ritory.

Consolidating the gains lays the groundwork for the operation’s next stage: Entering Mosul’s more urban neighbourhoods, which have old and narrow streets likely to hide booby traps and roadside bombs.

“I don’t think the western side will take us a lot of time,” Briga­dier-General Abbas al-Juburi of the Rapid Response force told Agence France-Presse.

US Defense Secretary James Mat­tis, who recently visited Baghdad, also said he was confident Iraqi security forces would have the up­per hand, despite warnings by com­manders and experts that taking Mosul’s west bank could result in some of the bloodiest battles yet against ISIS.

During a news conference after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraqi defence officials, Mattis said ISIS militants were “going to be shown exactly what they are, which is a bunch of murderous relics”.

US Air Force Brigadier-General Chuck Corcoran said as many as 50 aircraft were over the city at any one time, so many that it was like “layers on a wedding cake”. He said drones circled lower, fighter jets were in the middle and spy planes and other surveillance craft were at the highest altitudes.

Approximately 2,000 ISIS fight­ers were left in west Mosul to de­fend against the offensive by the Iraqi security forces, a senior US in­telligence official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

US-led coalition supporting Iraqi forces had estimated before the October 17th beginning of the op­eration in Mosul that the city was defended by 5,000-7,000 militants.

An estimated 750,000 civilians, almost half of them children, were trapped in west Mosul with dwin­dling food and medical supplies, aid organisations said. UN officials said they feared at least 250,000 ci­vilians could flee the fighting in the coming days, adding to the 160,000 displaced during the first four months of the offensive.

A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) said ISIS fighters have been raping and torturing Sunni Arab women. The report docu­mented cases of arbitrary deten­tions, beatings, forced marriages and rape by the militants on wom­en who have fled the town of Hawi­jah, which is still under ISIS control. In an earlier report, HRW accused Iranian-trained Iraqi paramilitary units of demolishing hundreds of Sunni Arab houses near Mosul.

The commander of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS said he ex­pected its forces would be allowed to stay in Iraq after Mosul is recap­tured.

“I don’t anticipate that we will be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul,” US Army Lieutenant-General Ste­phen Townsend said in Baghdad.

The coalition has more than 9,000 personnel in Iraq, more than half of them Americans. They are deployed in an advisory capacity but have sometimes been drawn into combat.

Abadi insisted Iraqi forces were “the only ones fighting” but said outside help was crucial. “Contin­ued support for Iraq is very neces­sary,” he said in a statement.

Mattis said the United States was not about to plunder Iraq’s pe­troleum reserves, as he sought to soothe Iraqi partners rattled by the statements of US President Donald Trump.

Trump has repeatedly said the United States, whose troops oc­cupied Iraq for eight years, should have confiscated Iraqi oil to help fund the US war effort and to de­prive ISIS of a vital revenue source.

Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, appeared to nix the idea.

“All of us in America have gen­erally paid for gas and oil all along and I am sure that we will continue to do so in the future,” Mattis said during a visit to Iraq.

“We are not in Iraq to seize any­body’s oil.”