As Iraqi forces en­ter Mo­sul, some civil­ians don’t feel safe

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Su­san­nah Ge­orge

As Iraqi forces pushed Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of Mo­sul’s east­ern neigh­bor­hoods this week, hun­dreds of civil­ians faced a dilemma: Stay in an area still be­set by heavy fight­ing and sur­rounded by gov­ern­ment troops that many still dis­trust, or evac­u­ate for the un­cer­tainty of a dis­place­ment camp.

The elite spe­cial forces en­tered the Gog­jali district Tues­day, touch­ing off an ex­o­dus by hun­dreds of res­i­dents, many herd­ing sheep, cows and goats as they fled to the east.

But still more have been told by the troops to stay in their homes as the bat­tle is chang­ing to one of ur­ban com­bat with the ex­trem­ists who hold Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city. Those civil­ians who re­main have es­sen­tially be­come trapped on the front lines.

As a con­voy of ar­mored Iraqi ve­hi­cles twisted through nar­row dirt roads, a hand­ful of fam­i­lies waved. Some chil­dren shouted and smiled at the pass­ing troops, but other res­i­dents peeked cau­tiously from behind gar­den gates. In the cen­ter of the district, a crowd lined up to col­lect boxes of aid.

One res­i­dent at the aid dis­tri­bu­tion site said the mood in the neigh­bor­hood was more tense than ex­u­ber­ant.

“We don’t feel en­tirely safe, maybe 50 per­cent,” he said, ex­plain­ing the edges of the district were still get­ting shelled heav­ily by the Is­lamic State group.

The res­i­dent, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause he still has rel­a­tives in Mo­sul, said he had tried to flee, but Iraqi se­cu­rity forces told him he had to stay in Gog­jali.

“Ev­ery­one here is trapped in this sit­u­a­tion. They’re afraid,” he said.

On Thurs­day, an ex­plo­sives-laden ve­hi­cle sped out of an IS-con­trolled area to­ward the spe­cial forces po­si­tioned in Gog­jali, Brig. Gen. Haider Fad­hil said. The troops fired a rocket that blew up the car, killing the at­tacker.

Fadil also said the mil­i­tants were us­ing ex­plo­sives-laden drones, de­ploy­ing two since the pre­vi­ous night, both of which had been de­stroyed.

In ad­di­tion to con­sol­i­dat­ing ter­ri­tory, root­ing out any IS fight­ers who may have stayed behind and check­ing for planted ex­plo­sives left by the mil­i­tants, the Iraqi troops have to han­dle those civil­ians who are flee­ing IS-held ter­ri­tory deeper in­side Mo­sul. More than 5,000 peo­ple have been evac­u­ated to nearby camps since Wed­nes­day from Gog­jali and nearby ar­eas, said Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, com­man­der of the Joint Mil­i­tary Op­er­a­tion com­mand.

About 22,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed from Mo­sul, with about half set­tled in camps and the rest in host com­mu­ni­ties, U.N. spokesman Stephane Du­jar­ric said. The U.N. and its hu­man­i­tar­ian part­ners have dis­trib­uted food, wa­ter and medicine to more than 25,000 dis­placed peo­ple and vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents in Iraq’s newly re­taken towns, he said.

Many res­i­dents who ven­tured onto Gog­jali’s streets were still dressed as if liv­ing under IS rule: women wore the niqab — a black veil cov­er­ing their face — and men had full beards. One Iraqi sol­dier in the con­voy held up a cell­phone and recorded video of the un­shaven men — his first glimpse in more than two years of life in­side Mo­sul.

Among Mo­sul’s res­i­dents, there is a deep dis­trust of Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, a feel­ing that con­trib­uted to the growth in power of the Is­lamic State group even be­fore it fell to the mil­i­tants in the sum­mer of 2014.

Under for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki, many res­i­dents viewed po­lice­men and sol­diers who pa­trolled the streets and manned check­points as an oc­cu­py­ing force.

A group of top Iraqi sol­diers gath­ered on a rooftop over­look­ing the Gog­jali neigh­bor­hood Wed­nes­day and de­tailed the progress of the of­fen­sive that be­gan Oct. 17.

“All of those sec­tions to the west have been cleared,” said Maj. Salam al-Obeidi, point­ing across a row of houses and re­fer­ring to satel­lite im­agery on his tablet com­puter. The low thuds of IS mor­tar fire could be heard in the dis­tance along the front.

In the fields be­low, fam­i­lies hold­ing home­made white flags ap­proached on foot.

“Why are you leav­ing? We are here to pro­tect you,” said spe­cial forces Gen. Sami al-Aridi.

“It’s bet­ter for them to stay,” he told re­porters. “The weather is get­ting cold and they have small chil­dren with them, and we don’t have any food to give.”

Two of his deputies said the real rea­son they were told to keep fam­i­lies in place was to screen them for po­ten­tial IS fight­ers hid­ing among civil­ians, as well as to gather in­tel­li­gence that could help the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion. The of­fi­cers spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not autho­rized to brief the press.

Adding to the un­cer­tainty among the pop­u­la­tion were ru­mors and hearsay.

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