US-backed forces pen­e­trate heart of ‘ji­hadist bas­tion’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

US-backed forces have pen­e­trated the heav­ily for­ti­fied heart of ji­hadist bas­tion Raqa for the first time, in a key milestone in the war against the Is­lamic State group in Syria. Air strikes by the USled coali­tion bat­tling IS punched two holes in the me­di­ae­val wall sur­round­ing the Old City of Raqa, al­low­ing fighters of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces to breach the ji­hadists’ de­fenses, Wash­ing­ton and the SDF said yes­ter­day. The land­mark ad­vance in IS’s no­to­ri­ous Syria bas­tion-the cul­mi­na­tion of a seven-month cam­paign­comes as the ji­hadists face an ex­pected de­feat within days in Iraq’s sec­ond city Mo­sul, the other pivot of the cross-bor­der “caliphate” they de­clared in 2014.

Coali­tion of­fi­cials said a few hun­dred diehard ji­hadists were mak­ing a des­per­ate last stand in just one square kilo­me­ter of Mo­sul’s Old City. The SDF-an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab forces that has spear­headed the coali­tion’s fight­back against IS in Syria-said its fighters had thrust into the Old City. It said the two breaches opened by coali­tion war­planes in the 2.5 kilo­me­ter wall around the Old City had en­abled its fighters to evade the ex­ten­sive de­fenses the ji­hadists have put up over the past three years.

“Daesh (IS) have used this ar­chae­o­log­i­cal wall to launch at­tacks, and planted bombs and mines in its gates to hin­der the ad­vance of SDF forces,” it said on its of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count. “The pre­cise air strike al­lowed the open­ing of two small 25-me­tre (80-foot) gaps in the wall, al­low­ing the en­try of SDF forces avoid­ing Daesh ex­plo­sives.” Raqa be­came in­fa­mous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atroc­i­ties, in­clud­ing pub­lic be­head­ings, and is thought to have been a hub for plan­ning at­tacks over­seas. The US en­voy to the coali­tion, Brett McGurk, said on Twit­ter that breach­ing the wall of the Old City marked a “key milestone in cam­paign to lib­er­ate the city.”

‘Pro­tected SDF, civil­ian lives’

US Cen­tral Com­mand, which over­sees mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions across the Mid­dle East, said the coali­tion air strike had not only spared lives among the advancing SDF fighters but also re­duced civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and dam­age to Raqa’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage. “Con­duct­ing tar­geted strikes on two small por­tions of the wall al­lowed coali­tion and part­ner forces to breach the Old City at lo­ca­tions of their choos­ing,” the state­ment read.This pre­vented IS from us­ing booby-traps, land­mines and sui­cide car bombs, while it also “pro­tected SDF and civil­ian lives, and pre­served the in­tegrity of the great­est por­tion of the wall,” it said.

The United Na­tions has raised con­cerns for tens of thou­sands of civil­ians trapped in Raqa, where it says the ji­hadists are us­ing many as hu­man shields. The so-called Rafiqah Wall that sur­rounds the city’s his­toric heart orig­i­nally dates back to the late 8th Cen­tury, when as cap­i­tal of the Ab­basid caliphate, Raqa was briefly the cen­tre of the Is­lamic world. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor­ing group with a wide net­work of sources on the ground, said the SDF ad­vance had been sup­ported by US spe­cial forces.

“This is the most im­por­tant progress for the SDF since the start of the as­sault on June 6,” Ob­ser­va­tory chief Rami Ab­del Rah­man said. The US-backed fighters al­ready in­flicted a ma­jor blow to the ji­hadists in Raqa on Sun­day, cross­ing the south back of the Euphrates River that flows through the city to es­tab­lish a bridge­head on the north bank. The coali­tion es­ti­mates that some 2,500 IS ji­hadists are de­fend­ing Raqa. That is far more than the 200 or so diehard IS fighters, most of them for­eign, that Iraqi com­man­ders be­lieve are holed up in the Old City of Mo­sul.

Mo­sul vic­tory ‘in 2 days’

Iraqi forces were mov­ing in on the last IS-con­trolled neigh­bor­hoods of the Old City from all sides yes­ter­day, com­man­ders said, adding that they ex­pected to an­nounce vic­tory in as few as two days. “From the early morn­ing, we were able to gain an im­por­tant foothold in th­ese neigh­bor­hoods,” Staff Bri­gadier Gen­eral Haidar Al-Obeidi, a com­man­der in the elite Counter-Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice said. “In the next two days, we will an­nounce the com­plete lib­er­a­tion of the Old City, and there­fore... the city of Mo­sul.”

Iraqi forces have been clos­ing in on Mo­sul’s Old City for months, but its maze of nar­row al­ley­ways com­bined with a large civil­ian pop­u­la­tion has made for an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult fight. Iraqi forces are fac­ing a ris­ing num­ber of sui­cide at­tacks, in­clud­ing some by fe­male bombers, in the fi­nal stages of the more than eight­month-long cam­paign, com­man­ders said. But coali­tion of­fi­cials said the ji­hadists were now on their last legs in their two most em­blem­atic strongholds. “#ISIS ter­ror­ists down to less than one square kilo­me­ter in #Mo­sul and to­tally sur­rounded in #Raqqa,” tweeted US en­voy McGurk. —AFP

DA­M­AS­CUS: Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad (cen­ter right) meets the new Melkite Greek Catholic Pa­tri­arch Youssef Absi (cen­ter left) in Da­m­as­cus. — AFP

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