Airstrikes fuel Mo­sul gains as Iraq pushes for quick vic­tory

Cape Breton Post - - World -

Half a dozen units of Is­lamic State group fighters holed up in west­ern Mo­sul be­gan their morn­ing ra­dio checks at just af­ter 4 a.m. It was still dark and Iraqi forces de­ployed a few blocks away were lis­ten­ing in as they pre­pared an ad­vance on the city’s al-Ri­fai neigh­bour­hood.

“Thirty, what’s new? ... 120, do you read me? What’s up?’’ the IS ra­dio op­er­a­tor said, us­ing Iraqi slag.

About 40 min­utes later the first U.S.-led coali­tion airstrike hit as Iraqi forces pushed across a main road and be­gan clear­ing the neigh­bour­hood’s nar­row streets.

“We’re see­ing at least two squirters at the im­pact site,’’ a mem­ber of the coali­tion force ra­dioed back to the Iraqi troops in Aus­tralian-ac­cented English, us­ing a slang term for badly wounded IS fighters. Mo­ments later the ex­trem­ists were call­ing for doc­tors over their own ra­dio net­work.

Over the next 12 hours, more than 10 coali­tion airstrikes hit al-Ri­fai’s eastern edge. Most tar­geted small teams of two or three IS fighters man­ning sniper ri­fles or ma­chine-guns so Iraq’s spe­cial forces units could ad­vance on the ground.

Mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions like the one in al-Ri­fai this week are ac­cel­er­at­ing in Mo­sul as part of a drive to re­take the hand­ful of dis­tricts still un­der IS con­trol be­fore the holy month of Ra­madan be­gins at the end of May. And de­spite re­cent al­le­ga­tions of in­creased civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, ad­vances on the ground con­tinue to be backed by heavy airstrikes and ar­tillery.

Launched in mid-Fe­bru­ary, the fight for Mo­sul’s west­ern sec­tor has been marked by some of the most dif­fi­cult fight­ing and cat­a­strophic de­struc­tion yet in Iraq’s war against IS. The bru­tal­ity of the op­er­a­tion was high­lighted

by a sin­gle in­ci­dent just a month into the op­er­a­tion _ a U.S. airstrike on March 17 that killed more than 100 peo­ple shel­ter­ing in a home, ac­cord­ing to res­i­dents and other wit­nesses in­ter­viewed by The As­so­ci­ated Press.

By con­trast, Mo­sul’s eastern half was re­taken in 100 days of fight­ing. While front lines stalled at times, the area was less densely pop­u­lated, neigh­bour­hoods were more mod­ern with wider streets al­low­ing tanks and other ar­moured ve­hi­cles greater free­dom of move­ment and the area was never un­der siege, al­low­ing many IS fighters to flee west­ward.

The num­ber of civil­ians re­port­edly killed in coali­tion airstrikes in Iraq and Syria spiked to 1,800 in March, more than three times the num­ber re­ported a month ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to Air­wars, a Lon­don-based group that tracks civil­ian deaths from coali­tion airstrikes. Of­fi­cial fig­ures from the Pen­tagon, which is slower in con­firm­ing deaths, are far lower: It said last month that it has con­firmed coali­tion airstrikes killed at least 352 civil­ians in Iraq and Syria com­bined since the cam­paign against IS started in 2014.

The March 17 in­ci­dent sparked out­rage in Iraq and beyond. The U.N. called on Iraq to con­duct “an ur­gent re­view of tac­tics to en­sure that the im­pact on civil­ians is re­duced to an ab­so­lute min­i­mum.’’

The Pen­tagon is still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dent but Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, said the mu­ni­tions used by the U.S. that day should not have taken the en­tire build­ing down, sug­gest­ing that mil­i­tants may have de­lib­er­ately gath­ered civil­ians there and planted other ex­plo­sives.

An Iraqi of­fi­cer over­see­ing the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion said that af­ter the March 17 strike, he re­ceived or­ders to no longer tar­get build­ings with mu­ni­tions. In­stead airstrikes were di­rected to the streets and gar­dens be­side IS lo­ca­tions. But the or­der lasted only a few days. Now, as Iraq’s army, spe­cial forces and mil­i­ta­rized fed­eral po­lice push to clear the last ves­tiges of west­ern Mo­sul held by IS, the vol­ume of airstrikes is the same as when the mis­sion to re­take west­ern Mo­sul first be­gan, said the of­fi­cer, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity in line with reg­u­la­tions.

AP PHOTO

A child sleeps on his mother’s shoul­der af­ter a per­ilous jour­ney on foot to flee heavy fight­ing in their neigh­bor­hood be­tween Iraqi forces and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, at a pro­cess­ing cen­tre in west Mo­sul, Iraq, Thurs­day.

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