ISIS turns to Anbar as it loses grip of Mosul
London- Islamic State (ISIS) militants have refocused their efforts in Iraq’s western province of Anbar as they gradually lose ground to Iraqi forces in the country’s northern city of Mosul.
ISIS militants killed at least ten soldiers in the remote outpost of Rutba on May 2 in their latest attack on security forces in the area, officers said. “We had ten soldiers killed and six wounded in an attack by Daesh early this morning,” an army lieutenant-colonel told Agence France-Presse (AFP), using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Rutba is about 390km west of Baghdad in the vast province of Anbar and is the last sizeable town before the border with Jordan.
Anbar is a sprawling desert province traversed by the Euphrates River. It borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and has long been an insurgent stronghold. ISIS already controlled parts of it when it swept through Iraq in 2014 and took over approximately one-third of the country.
Pro-government forces have since retaken most towns and cities in Anbar but ISIS militants control areas near the Syrian border and have desert hideouts from which they harass federal forces.
Figures provided to AFP by Anbar officials indicate that at least 26 Iraqi personnel — including members of the border guard, the army and the police — have been killed in the area since April 23.
Military officials said ISIS was trying to breach the defences of Rutba, whose small size belies its strategic importance and create diversions to ease the pressure on its fighters in Mosul, AFP reported.
ISIS had carried out diversionary attacks in the country, including on Rutba, but the group is apparently stretched too thin to fight on many fronts. The attacks were aimed “at opening gaps in the security set-up around Rutba to prepare for an attempt to recapture it,” a local police colonel told AFP.
“The Daesh organisation is also trying to ease the pressure on its fighters in Mosul by opening other fronts with the Iraqi security forces, especially in Anbar,” he said.
A brigadier-general in the Iraqi Army estimated that ISIS controls about 30% of Anbar province, AFP said. Iraqi forces estimate the number of ISIS members in Mosul at 200-300, mostly foreigners, down from nearly 6,000 when the offensive started. The total number of fighters aligned against ISIS in Mosul exceeds 100,000.
An Iraqi commander reportedly said he expected ISIS to be dislodged from Mosul in May despite resistance from militants in the densely populated Old City district.
The battle should be completed “in a maximum of three weeks,” the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Othman al-Ghanmi, was quoted as saying by state-run newspaper al-Sabah.
A Federal Police brigade commander and 18 other members of the Interior Ministry force were killed in attacks by ISIS on two positions at the edge of the Old City, military sources told Reuters.
The United Nations said up to 500,000 people remain in the area, 400,000 of whom are in the Old City with little food, water and medicine.
In an investigation by the Associated Press, survivors and witnesses of an American air strike that killed more than 100 Iraqi civilians in the western part of Mosul on March 17 said ISIS did not booby-trap the bombed building that was housing civilians.
Their accounts underscore how increased use of bombardments has made the fight for Mosul’s western sector, which began in mid-February, dramatically more destructive than the battle for its eastern half.
More than 1,590 residential buildings have been destroyed in western Mosul, based on analysis of satellite imagery and information from local researchers, the United Nations said.
Air strikes killed 1,117 people in western Mosul in March and April alone, said Iraq Body Count, an independent group that documents casualties in the war, cross-checking media reports with information from hospitals, officials and other sources.
In comparison, an estimated 1,600 civilians were killed or wounded from all causes during the 100-day campaign to recapture Mosul’s less densely populated eastern half, which began in mid- October and ended in mid-January.
Separately, Turkey announced that its special forces carried out a military operation in Iraq’s city of Erbil to capture a man wanted by Ankara for terrorism offenses.
“Hacı Turmak, who is the mastermind of 59 bloody attacks in Turkey’s urban areas, was captured,” wrote the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah.
The move marked a new development since late April when Turkey launched air strikes against militant bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
(With news agencies).