Aid workers ‘brace for the worst’ from Mosul battle
Bad weather appears to have limited operations
More than a million civilians in Mosul are in grave danger and aid workers are “bracing for the worst”, a relief group said yesterday, after Iraqi forces reached the jihadist-held city. Just over two weeks into the offensive to retake the last Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State group, the country’s forces have fought their way to the eastern outskirts of Mosul. But there were no signs yet of a major push inside Mosul itself and bad weather appeared to have limited operations, while forces on other fronts were still some distance from the city.
Gunfire echoed across the village of Gogjali on the eastern edge of Mosul on Wednesday as elite Iraqi forces worked to clear the area. Civilians emerged with tales of brutality under IS. “They confiscated my tractor and then threw me in jail for six days. They beat me and when I got out I couldn’t do my work anymore,” said Yusef Fariq. The 40-year-old farmer, speaking from his home in Gogjali and surrounded by his mother and two sons, still had the long beard IS militants forced him to grow. “They were killing us, always asking for money, we couldn’t go anywhere. We went through hell,” his mother said. The Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the most active relief groups operating in Iraq, warned that a longfeared humanitarian crisis was closer than ever.
“We are now bracing ourselves for the worst. The lives of 1.2 million civilians are in grave danger, and the future of all of Iraq is now in the balance,” NRC Iraq director Wolfgang Gressmann said in a statement. “People in and around Mosul have lived for almost two and a half years in a relentless, terrifying nightmare. We are now all responsible to put an end to it,” Gressmann said.
More than 20,000 people have already fled to government-held areas since the offensive was launched on October 17, according to the International Organization for Migration. But civilians inside Mosul-who according to aid group Save The Children include up to 600,000 childrenare trapped behind IS lines and the United Nations has said thousands are being held for possible use as human shields.
In Gogjali, fighters with Iraq’s elite CounterTerrorism Service (CTS) were screening civilians for any remaining members of IS. One government fighter carried a black IS flag, saying: “We removed it and planted the Iraqi flag instead.” Backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition, Iraqi federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters are advancing on Mosul from the east, north and south.
Soldiers pushing down from the north have moved within two kilometers of Mosul, military officials say, while forces moving from the south are still some distance from the city. Paramilitary forces from the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), an umbrella organization dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militia, also launched an assault at the weekend to cut off the jihadists’ escape route to Syria to the west of Mosul.
IS radio reveals tactics
IS is vastly outnumbered in the battle, with an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 jihadist fighters in Mosul and the surrounding area. But the jihadists have put up stiff resistance with suicide bombers, mortars and small arms fire as Iraqi forces advance. On the southern front, where Iraq’s elite Rapid Response Division is advancing towards the IS-held town of Hamam Al-Alil some 20 kilometers from Mosul, a captured IS radio provided rare insight into how the jihadists operate.
An AFP journalist embedded with Iraqi forces was present on Tuesday as they listened to IS fighters plan over the radio. “Abu Dhiyab, let the istishhadi with you go,” a jihadist who was referred to as Abu Al-Layl said over the captured radio, using an Arabic word the jihadists use for suicide bombers. Abu Dhiyab replied: “I brought the istishhadiyeen and left them behind the dirt berm. As soon as they (Iraqi forces) advance, they will go out to them.”
A Rapid Response captain ordered two vehicles to approach the berm to draw the jihadists out, but the suicide bombers were hit by air strikes before that could happen. After seizing control of large parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria in mid-2014, IS declared a cross-border “caliphate”, imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law and committed widespread atrocities. IS has been losing ground steadily in Iraq since 2015 and the outcome of the Mosul battle is in little doubt, but commanders have warned it could last months. If the city is retaken, only Raqa in Syria will remain as the last major city under the jihadists’ control. — AFP
MOSUL: Iraqi soldiers pose with an Islamic State (IS) group flag as they hold a position in the village of Gogjali.