IS turns to tun­nels in last stand for Iraqi town

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Iraqi Kur­dish forces came un­der heavy fire from a sal­mon-col­ored house on the edge of the Is­lamic State group-held town of Bashiqa, but when they stormed it, it was empty. “The fiercest re­sis­tance was com­ing from here,” said Cor­po­ral Hawkar Weis, point­ing to the two-storey house on the east­ern side of Bashiqa, which is now un­der the con­trol of Kur­dish pesh­merga forces. “But when we en­tered, there was no one here. The Daesh fighters were us­ing tun­nels to cross from this house to the other neigh­bor­hoods,” the portly pesh­merga fighter said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for the ex­trem­ist group. Pesh­merga forces re­cap­tured Bashiqa from IS this week, af­ter street fight­ing and air strikes that heav­ily dam­aged many of the town’s low, brightly painted homes and rows of shops.

Seiz­ing it was a fi­nal step in se­cur­ing the east­ern ap­proaches to Mo­sul, three weeks into an of­fen­sive by Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coali­tion to re­take the coun­try’s sec­ond city. Even af­ter the Kur­dish forces over­ran most of Bashiqa, they strug­gled to clear out a hand­ful of IS fighters scur­ry­ing through a net­work of tun­nels dug un­der its res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods. As the ji­hadists made their last stand in Bashiqa on Tues­day, they used the un­der­ground path­ways to trans­port fighters and sui­cide bombers to in­flict as much dam­age as pos­si­ble.

The pink house was the net­work’s nerve cen­tre. Weis and two other pesh­merga cor­po­rals walked gin­gerly through hall­ways lit­tered with shattered glass and filthy bed­ding. Their weapons were raised, they ex­plained, be­cause there could still be one or two IS mil­i­tants hid­ing out in the home. They turned the cor­ner into a rect­an­gu­lar room, dark­ened by thick blan­kets hung up on the win­dows and dom­i­nated by a gap­ing hole sev­eral me­ters deep. A small mo­tor was sus­pended above the hole on thick metal pipes, at­tached to a hook. IS fighters used the mo­tor to haul buck­ets of dirt out, dump­ing them into the sur­round­ing rooms­but never out­side.

‘Stay above ground’

“If (IS fighters) take the dirt out­side, then the coali­tion war­planes will see them and know where they are. So they hide the dirt from the tun­nels in­side the rooms,” Weis said. In­deed, the sur­round­ing bed­rooms were full of small moun­tains of dirt­some­times crowned with a wheel­bar­row or shov­els. IS fighters had taped a hand-drawn map above the tun­nel mouth to in­di­cate at least ten other en­trances scat­tered around Bashiqa, with dis­tances marked in me­tres be­tween cer­tain rooms, houses, and streets. Pesh­merga fighters de­scribed a twisted game of whack-a-mole, wait­ing for IS fighters to emerge from their un­der­ground maze to strike. “IS fighters are pro­tect­ing them­selves from coali­tion air strikes by hid­ing in the tun­nels,” said Ma­jor Gen­eral Iskan­dar Ha­jji, a lo­cal pesh­merga com­man­der. “We have a prob­lem with these tun­nel­swe can’t do any­thing ex­cept wait for them to come out so we can fight them,” he told AFP.

At least one se­nior of­fi­cer lost his life on Tues­day when a trio of sui­cide bombers emerged from a tun­nel mouth in east­ern Bashiqa. “A ma­jor gen­eral came back from re­tire­ment to fight Daesh here. Sui­cide bombers jumped out of one of the tun­nels. He was able to kill two of them, but the third one det­o­nated him­self,” Weis said. An­other tun­nel en­trance in the same house could be en­tered via a crude set of dirt steps. A lanky pesh­merga fighter who iden­ti­fied him­self as Cor­po­ral Idris peered into the tun­nel and fired his as­sault ri­fle into the abyss, paus­ing to lis­ten for any return fire or ric­o­chet. He pulled his shirt over his nose and mouth and ven­tured a few me­ters into the tun­nel be­fore turn­ing back. “We are still not sure what is in there. It’s bet­ter to stay above ground,” he said. — AFP

MO­SUL: A mem­ber of the Iraqi forces pre­pares am­mu­ni­tions for 122mm how­itzers at an army po­si­tion in the vil­lage of Ar­bid on the south­ern out­skirts of Mo­sul yes­ter­day, dur­ing the on­go­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to re­take Mo­sul from the Is­lamic State (IS) group. — AFP

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