Al­lied forces breach wall, slip into Raqqa’s Old City

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Sarah el Deeb, Su­san­nah Ge­orge and Ahmed Sami of The As­so­ci­ated Press and by Liz Sly, Louisa Loveluck, Aaso Ameen Sh­wan and Mustafa Salim of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

BEIRUT — U.S.-backed forces in Syria breached the wall around Raqqa’s Old City, the U.S. mil­i­tary said Tues­day, mark­ing a ma­jor ad­vance in the weeks-old bat­tle to drive Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of their de­clared cap­i­tal.

U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand said the coali­tion struck two “small por­tions” of the Rafiqah Wall, al­low­ing the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces “to ad­vance into the most heav­ily for­ti­fied por­tion” of the city, by­pass­ing booby traps and snipers. It said the strikes left most of the 2,500-yard wall from the eighth cen­tury in­tact.

The head of the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, Rami Ab­dur­rah­man, said the breach­ing of the wall was the most im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment to date in the bat­tle for Raqqa, which the mil­i­tants have held since Jan­uary 2014. He said three Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces units ad­vanced

to­ward the wall un­der air cover, break­ing through the Is­lamic State de­fenses, and that heavy clashes were un­der­way.

Footage pro­vided by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces showed their fighters roam­ing Qasr al-Banat, a his­toric quar­ter in­side Raqqa’s Old City. An­other unit en­tered through the so-called Bagh­dad Gate, open­ing up a sec­ond front in­side the Old City.

Brett McGurk, the top U.S. en­voy for the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion against the Is­lamic State group, hailed the breach, say­ing it was a “key milestone” in the cam­paign to seize the Is­lamic State strong­hold.

An­other U.S. of­fi­cial warned that the foothold in the neigh­bor­hood, one of the city’s most densely pop­u­lated, does not mean the 4-week-old bat­tle for con­trol of Raqqa is near­ing a con­clu­sion.

Un­like in Mo­sul, Iraq, where the Old City has been the scene of the Is­lamic State’s last stand af­ter nearly nine months of fight­ing, Raqqa’s Old City is one of the first cen­tral city neigh­bor­hoods to be breached by the advancing forces, said Col. Ryan Dil­lon, the U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman in Bagh­dad.

“Be­ing in the Old City in Raqqa does not mean the same thing as it does in Mo­sul, where the Old City was the last bas­tion for ISIS,” Dil­lon said, us­ing an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “That is not the case in Raqqa. It’s just where the [Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces] … have pen­e­trated right now, but there is plenty of fight­ing that re­mains in Raqqa.”

The neigh­bor­hood is one of the ar­eas Is­lamic State fighters had ex­pected to de­fend most fiercely, re­ly­ing on the city wall to pro­vide cover and fo­cus­ing their de­fenses around two ex­ist­ing breaches.

Had the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fighters at­tempted to storm the area through those gaps, they would have en­coun­tered an ar­ray of heavy ma­chine guns, ar­tillery, snipers, mines, booby traps and car bombs, Dil­lon said. By blow­ing up two dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the wall, U.S. war­planes en­abled them to by­pass those, he said.

By avert­ing a bat­tle for con­trol of the walls, the at­tack also may have helped pre­serve the his­toric mon­u­ment, the mil­i­tary state­ment said.

The struc­ture is one of the last re­main­ing mon­u­ments of the head­quar­ters of the Ab­bassid caliphate, which was briefly seated in Raqqa be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to Bagh­dad. It was in part be­cause of its his­tor­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion with the an­cient caliphate that the Is­lamic State de­clared Raqqa, the first ma­jor city its forces con­quered, to be the cap­i­tal of its self-pro­claimed caliphate.

The Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces opened a mul­ti­pronged as­sault on Raqqa in early June, af­ter se­cur­ing the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. On Sun­day, the U.S.-backed fighters crossed the Euphrates River on the south­ern edge of the city, com­plet­ing its en­cir­clement.

U.N. of­fi­cials say 50,000 to 100,000 civil­ians re­main in the city, en­dur­ing “dire” con­di­tions. Those who try to es­cape risk be­ing at­tacked by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants or forcibly re­cruited as hu­man shields.

Sev­eral Is­lamic State lead­ers were once based in Raqqa, where the group plot­ted at­tacks in Europe. The loss of the north­ern Syr­ian city, one of the last Is­lamic State strongholds, would deal a ma­jor blow to the group. The mil­i­tants are also on the verge of los­ing their last foothold in Mo­sul, where Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi pro­claimed the group’s caliphate in July 2014.

Only around 5,400 square feet re­main un­der Is­lamic State con­trol, Dil­lon said, and a fi­nal dec­la­ra­tion of vic­tory could be just days away.

MO­SUL ‘VIC­TORY’ DE­CLARED

Even as the fight­ing con­tin­ued in Mo­sul’s Old City neigh­bor­hood, where Iraqi forces are fac­ing in­creas­ingly fierce re­sis­tance as they near the Ti­gris River, Iraq’s prime min­is­ter on Tues­day con­grat­u­lated his fighters on “the big vic­tory in Mo­sul.”

Haider al-Abadi spoke dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Bagh­dad, less than a week af­ter he de­clared an end to the Is­lamic State’s self-styled caliphate af­ter Iraqi forces achieved an in­cre­men­tal win by re­tak­ing the land­mark al-Nuri Mosque.

In Mo­sul, dazed and mal­nour­ished civil­ians were evac­u­ated to safety as Iraqi forces ad­vanced.

Gen. Sami Al-Aridhi, a com­man­der with the Counter Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice, said his troops were advancing on foot through the Old City’s wind­ing maze of streets.

“It’s a bat­tle in­side al­ley­ways against an en­emy that com­mits to no ethics,” he said.

Elite Iraqi rapid-re­sponse units were call­ing in U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes at close quar­ters Tues­day as Iraqi spe­cial forces moved door to door, evac­u­at­ing civil­ians who had cow­ered in their homes through the fi­nal, ter­ri­fy­ing as­sault.

Dozens of those fam­i­lies crossed the Ti­gris River in the beds of pick­ups as tem­per­a­tures soared to 122 de­grees. Dis­em­bark­ing to meet aid work­ers at an aban­doned fair­ground, they looked ex­hausted. Some were hold­ing back tears. Oth­ers crouched over their bags and cried.

“There was no food, no wa­ter; we had noth­ing. We were so scared,” said Hana’a Ashifa, a mother of four evac­u­ated early Mon­day from the Old City. “When we fi­nally heard the se­cu­rity forces, my mother looked at me, picked up our white flag and said: ‘It’s time to go.’”

More than 400,000 peo­ple have fled Mo­sul’s west­ern dis­tricts since May 10, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. Tens of thou­sands more are still thought to be trapped.

With peo­ple largely cut off from food and wa­ter for months, hu­man­i­tar­ian groups are re­port­ing a spike in the num­ber of the dis­placed who are suf­fer­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion and de­hy­dra­tion.

“None of the pre­vi­ous bat­tles were like this,” said Iraqi Maj. Faris Aboud, work­ing at a small field hos­pi­tal just out­side the Old City.

“In a sin­gle day we re­ceived 300 wounded,” Aboud, a fa­ther of three con­tin­ued. “For me, see­ing the wounded chil­dren is the hard­est; we see chil­dren who have lost their en­tire fam­i­lies un­der the rub­ble. They have no one now.”

Aid groups said this week that hun­dreds of civil­ians had been killed or wounded in the fight for the Old City.

“They have been caught be­tween ae­rial bom­bard­ment, ar­tillery, snipers and car bombs. They live in fear; they hide in their homes with­out food or wa­ter,” said Iolanda Jaque­met, a spokesman for the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross.

That fight was vis­i­ble on the bod­ies of women and chil­dren freed Tues­day. Shrap­nel laced the faces of sev­eral young girls. Par­ents de­scribed shelling that had hit their homes di­rectly, wound­ing those in­side with­out op­tions for treat­ment.

“Our med­i­cal teams have been treat­ing 50 to 60 ca­su­al­ties per day. The hos­pi­tals are over­whelmed,” said Jaque­met.

On the Web Is­lamic State nwadg.com/is­lam­ic­state

AP/FELIPE DANA

Iraqi civil­ians flee Tues­day through the rub­ble of de­stroyed houses in the Old City of Mo­sul, Iraq.

AP

This frame grab from video re­leased Tues­day and pro­vided by Fu­rat FM, a Syr­ian Kur­dish ac­tivist-run me­dia group, shows U.S.backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fighters in the east­ern side of Raqqa, Syria.

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