Elite Iraqi forces push into Mo­sul, fac­ing re­sis­tance

‘They had blocked all the roads’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

MO­SUL:

Ji­hadist fight­ers un­leashed a del­uge of bombs and gun­fire yes­ter­day on Iraqi forces punch­ing into the streets of Mo­sul for the first time, forc­ing some units into a par­tial pull­back. Some ar­mored ve­hi­cles from the elite Coun­terT­er­ror­ism Ser­vice (CTS) re­turned from the streets of Al-Karamah a few hours af­ter mov­ing in and en­coun­ter­ing fierce re­sis­tance from the Is­lamic State group, an AFP cor­re­spon­dent re­ported.

“We weren’t expecting such re­sis­tance. They had blocked all the roads,” said one of­fi­cer, as top brass con­sid­ered whether or not to at­tempt a fresh foray. “There are large num­bers of ji­hadists... It was prefer­able to pull back and de­vise a new plan,” the CTS of­fi­cer said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. Some CTS forces re­mained in­side the city how­ever and there were at least five reg­i­ments in­volved in the op­er­a­tion launched yes­ter­day, mak­ing it hard to gauge the ex­tent of the pull­back.

Af­ter day­break, bull­doz­ers and tanks backed by air strikes had pushed into the streets of Mo­sul from the east for the first time since Iraqi forces launched a broad of­fen­sive to re­take the city on Oc­to­ber 17. The CTS’s “Mo­sul reg­i­ment”, which was the last to leave the city when the ji­hadists over­ran it in June 2014, im­me­di­ately faced “tough re­sis­tance”, Com­man­der Mun­tad­har Salem told AFP.

The gun­fire was al­most un­in­ter­rupted for hours and re­ports from the front crack­ling into CTS ra­dios said IS had set up bar­ri­ers and laid bombs all along the streets. Air strikes by the US-led coali­tion had in­ten­si­fied over the past two days, de­spite the smoke from burn­ing tyres set on fire by IS in a bid to pro­vide cover. They ebbed when the push on the ground got under way how­ever. The re­sis­tance came de­spite wide­spread re­ports in re­cent weeks that top IS com­man­ders had left the east­ern side of the city and crossed the Ti­gris river to re­group on its west bank.

Back from the dead

An es­ti­mated 3,000 to 5,000 IS fight­ers are scat­tered across the sprawl­ing city, Iraq’s sec­ond largest, where a mil­lion-plus civil­ians are be­lieved to be trapped. There has been an ex­o­dus of civil­ians from out­ly­ing vil­lages this week but few man­aged to find a safe way out of the city it­self. Umm Ali could not hold back her tears when she spoke of her con­stant fear the ji­hadists would take her young sons. “They kept com­ing to our home. Some­times they’d knock on the door at 10:00 pm,” she said. “They took our car, say­ing: ‘This is the land of the caliphate, it be­longs to us’.”

Civil­ians seek­ing refuge in Kur­dish­con­trolled ar­eas east of the city re­counted tales of IS bru­tal­ity. “We’re com­ing from the world of the dead back to the world of the liv­ing,” said Raed Ali, 40, who fled his home in the nearby vil­lage of Bazwaya. In a rare au­dio mes­sage re­leased on Thurs­day, IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Bagh­dadi urged his fight­ers to de­fend the city where he pro­claimed the “caliphate” in June 2014.

The public an­nounce­ment he made from the pul­pit of Mo­sul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri her­alded the most am­bi­tious and bru­tal ex­per­i­ment in mod­ern ji­had, a pe­riod marked by mass mur­der, at­tempted geno­cide and slav­ery. But his “caliphate” has been shrink­ing steadily since mid-2015 and the loss of Mo­sul would leave Raqa, in Syria, as the group’s only ma­jor ur­ban strong­hold. IS has been in­creas­ingly prag­matic in its tac­tics this year, fall­ing back in the face of su­pe­rior force even in some of its em­blem­atic bas­tions such as Fal­lu­jah in Iraq and Dabiq in Syria.

Caliphate ‘on de­fen­sive’

How­ever Bagh­dadi, in his first mes­sage of 2016, called on IS fight­ers still in Mo­sul to make a stand for Iraq’s sec­ond city. “Hold­ing your ground with honor is a thou­sand times eas­ier than re­treat­ing in shame,” he said. Ay­menn Al-Tamimi, a ji­hadism ex­pert at the Mid­dle East Fo­rum, said the tone of the half-hour speech was “very much of a caliphate on the de­fen­sive.”

Iraqi forces and their Ira­nian and USled coali­tion al­lies see the bat­tle for Mo­sul as cap­ping a two-year re­cov­ery from the rout that saw IS sweep through the Sunni Arab heart­land north and west of Baghdad. As they re­gained ground and the caliphate de­clined, de­fec­tions from IS ranks in­creased, pro­vid­ing in­tel­li­gence that en­abled coali­tion air­craft to take out key field com­man­ders. IS has con­tin­ued to post pro­pa­ganda video from Mo­sul, the lat­est of which showed a busy market area and cars stop­ping at traf­fic lights. With colder weather set­ting in, con­cern has grown for the city’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. Aid groups say up to a mil­lion peo­ple could seek to flee as soon as they can, but shel­ter is avail­able for only a frac­tion of that num­ber. The United Na­tions says it has re­ceived cred­i­ble re­ports of IS forc­ing tens of thou­sands of civil­ians into Mo­sul from out­ly­ing ar­eas for use as “hu­man shields”. — AFP

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