Civil­ians flee as Shi­ite groups close in on flash­point town

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Tens of thou­sands of Iraqi civil­ians have fled Tal Afar as Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary groups close in the Is­lamic State-held town on the road be­tween Mo­sul and Raqqa, the main cities of the mil­i­tant group’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The ex­o­dus from Tal Afar, 60 km west of Mo­sul, is caus­ing con­cern among hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions as some of the flee­ing civil­ians are head­ing deeper into in­sur­gents’ ter­ri­tory, where aid can­not be sent to them, pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials said.

Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion units, a coali­tion of mostly Ira­ni­antrained and backed mili­tias, are try­ing to en­cir­cle Tal Afar, a mostly eth­nic Turk­men town, as part of the of­fen­sive to cap­ture Mo­sul, the last ma­jor city strong­hold of Is­lamic State in Iraq. About 3,000 fam­i­lies have left the town, with about half head­ing south­west, to­ward Syria, and half north­ward, into Kur­dish-held ter­ri­tory, said Nu­raldin Qablan, a Tal Afar rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the Nin­eveh pro­vin­cial coun­cil, now based in the Kur­dish cap­i­tal Er­bil.

“We ask Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties to open a safe pas­sage for them,” he told Reuters. He said Is­lamic State started on Sun­day night to al­low peo­ple to leave after it fired mor­tars at Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion po­si­tions at the air­port, south of the city, and Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion forces re­sponded. The of­fen­sive started on Oct 17 with air and ground sup­port from a US-led coali­tion. It is turn­ing into the most com­plex cam­paign in Iraq since the 2003 in­va­sion that top­pled Sad­dam Hus­sein and em­pow­ered the na­tion’s Shi­ite ma­jor­ity. The peo­ple flee­ing Tal Afar are from the Sunni com­mu­nity, which makes up a ma­jor­ity in the Nin­eveh prov­ince in and around Mo­sul. The town also had a Shi­ite com­mu­nity, which fled in 2014 when the hard­line Sunni group swept through the re­gion. Tur­key is alarmed that regional ri­val Iran could ex­tend its power through proxy groups to an area close to the Turk­ish and Syr­ian bor­ders, where Ankara is back­ing rebels op­posed to the Rus­sian and Ira­ni­an­backed Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad. Cit­ing its close ties to Tal Afar’s Turk­men’s pop­u­la­tion, Tur­key has threat­ened to in­ter­vene to pre­vent re­venge killings should Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion forces, known in Ara­bic as Hashid Shaabi, storm the town.

“Peo­ple are flee­ing due to the Hashid’s ad­vance, there are great fears among the civil­ians,” said Qablan, who is also the deputy head of Nin­eveh’s pro­vin­cial coun­cil. Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider Al-Abadi tried to al­lay fears of eth­nic and sec­tar­ian killings in Tal Afar, say­ing any force sent to re­cap­ture it would re­flect the city’s di­ver­sity. Cut­ting the road to Tal Afar would seal off Mo­sul as the city is al­ready sur­rounded to the north, south and east by Iraqi govern­ment and Kur­dish pesh­merga forces. Iraq’s US-trained Counter Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice unit breached Is­lamic State’s de­fenses in east Mo­sul at the end of Oc­to­ber and is fight­ing to ex­pand a foothold it gained there.

Air strikes on Mo­sul

Iraqi mil­i­tary es­ti­mates put the num­ber of in­sur­gents in Mo­sul at 5,000 to 6,000, fac­ing a 100,000-strong coali­tion of Iraqi govern­ment units, pesh­merga fight­ers and Shi­ite mili­tias. Mo­sul’s cap­ture is seen as cru­cial to­wards dis­man­tling the caliphate, and Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi, be­lieved to have with­drawn to a re­mote area near the Syr­ian bor­der, has told his fight­ers there can be no re­treat. A Mo­sul res­i­dent said air strikes have in­ten­si­fied on the west­ern part of the city, which is divided by the Ti­gris river run­ning through its cen­tre.

The strikes tar­geted an in­dus­trial area where Is­lamic State is thought to be mak­ing booby traps and trans­form­ing ve­hi­cles into car bombs, he said. —Reuters

KHIDR ILYAS: A mem­ber of the Iraqi Chris­tian forces Kataeb Baby­lon (Baby­lon Bri­gades) holds a Kalash­nikov as­sault ri­fle as he poses at the Mar Ben­ham Syr­iac Catholic monastery in the town of Khidr Ilyas, south­east of Mo­sul. Iraqi fight­ers bat­tling to oust the Is­lamic State group from Mo­sul cap­tured the Catholic Mar Ben­ham monastery on Novem­ber 20, al­low­ing its priests to re­turn.—AFP

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