As battle for Mosul grinds on, Islamic State hits other cities
MOSUL, Iraq — Iraq’s special forces worked Sunday to clear neighborhoods on the eastern edge of Islamic State-held Mosul as bombings launched by the extremist group elsewhere in the country killed at least 20 people.
The Mosul offensive has slowed in recent days as Iraqi forces have pushed into more densely populated areas, where they cannot rely as much on airstrikes and shelling because of the risk posed to civilians, who have been told to stay in their homes.
“There are a lot of civilians and we are trying to protect them,” said Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Timimi. “This is one of the hardest battles that we’ve faced till now.”
Some civilians are fleeing the combat zone, while Islamic State militants are holding others back for use as human shields, making it harder for Iraqi commanders at the front lines to get approval for U.S.-led coalition air strikes. Iraq’s special forces are some of the country’s best troops, but they still largely rely on air support to clear terrain.
Iraqi forces first entered the eastern edge of the city on Tuesday. On Friday, forces began pushing into Mosul proper but so far have advanced just over a mile into the city.
They could receive a boost with Sunday’s launch of a long-awaited offensive against the Islamic Stateheld city of Raqqa in northern Syria, the de facto capital of the extremist group’s self-styled caliphate. That operation, launched by U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces, could force the extremists to split their forces to defend the two largest cities under their control.
On the southern front of the Mosul battle, Iraqi forces are still some 12 miles from the city center. The fighting is focused on the town of Hamam al-Alil, where Associated Press journalists heard gunfire and saw attack helicopters firing on Islamic State positions.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters launched mortar rounds and fired heavy artillery at the Islamic State-held town of Bashiqa, about 8 miles northeast of Mosul. The town, which is believed to be largely empty except for Islamic State militants, has been encircled by Kurdish forces.
The extremists captured Mosul and surrounding areas in 2014, and have had plenty of time to dig trenches, block off roads and mine approaches to the city.
“Daesh dug trenches that they filled with water and they have a lot of suicide attackers and car bombs,” said al-Timimi, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The extremists, meanwhile, struck far from the front lines with a series of bombings.
The deadliest attack took place in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, which is home to a major Shiite shrine. Provincial spokesman Ali alHamdani said the attacker set off a bomb-packed ambulance in a parking lot near Shiite pilgrims before detonating his explosives vest.
The attack killed 11 people, including at least four Iranians, and wounded up to 100 other people.
Another suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden car into a busy checkpoint outside the city of Tikrit, killing at least nine people while 25 others were wounded, al-Hamdani said.
In a statement posted on a militant website, Islamic State claimed all three bombings.
Two explosions killed 11 people and wounded up to 100 in Samarra, Iraq, on Sunday.