U.S.-backed forces face re­sis­tance from Is­lamic State in ‘fi­nal bat­tle’

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - International - By Ben Wede­man, Ka­reem Khad­der and El­iza Mack­in­tosh

U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes pum­meled an east­ern Syr­ian vil­lage near the Iraqi bor­der at sun­rise Sun­day as fight­ers from the Amer­i­can-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces launched an as­sault to oust the Is­lamic State from its last re­main­ing en­clave, the fi­nal rem­nant of the ter­ror­ist group’s so-called “caliphate.”

As dark col­umns of smoke from the west­ern part of the vil­lage of Baghouz were be­ing sent into the sky, SDF com­man­ders said their fight­ers are be­ing met by fierce re­sis­tance from IS fight­ers, who are re­tal­i­at­ing with heat-seek­ing mis­siles. Two SDF fight­ers were killed and oth­ers in­jured af­ter one SDF ve­hi­cle was hit.

“The bat­tle is very fierce,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali. “Those re­main­ing in­side are the most ex­pe­ri­enced who are de­fend­ing their last strong­hold. Ac­cord­ing to this you can imag­ine the fe­roc­ity and size of the fight­ing.”

Af­ter paus­ing more than a week to al­low thou­sands of civil­ians to flee the town, the SDF on Satur­day re­newed its push to wrest the last 1½ square miles from the ex­trem­ists.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a war mon­i­tor, said SDF fight­ers are ad­vanc­ing “cau­tiously” due to mines planted by IS gun­men. It said U.S.-led coali­tion war­planes are giv­ing cover to ad­vanc­ing SDF fight­ers.

The ter­ror­ists have bur­rowed be­neath the town, build­ing a net­work of tun­nels that al­low them to shift from house to house un­de­tected. The strat­egy, which the group de­ployed in Mo­sul and else­where, is pre­sent­ing a real chal­lenge, SDF com­man­ders said.

At least 500 IS fight­ers are be­lieved to re­main in Baghouz, thought to be a con­cen­tra­tion of IS’s most ex­pe­ri­enced and bat­tle­hard­ened fight­ers and com­man­ders.

At its peak, IS held large swaths of Iraq and Syria — an ex­panse about the size of Por­tu­gal.

Its ter­ri­tory has now shrunk to a tiny pocket in Syria’s east­ern Deir elZour province, with ter­ror­ists holed up in Baghouz.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sug­gested last Wed­nes­day that IS’s de­feat was im­mi­nent, adding that a for­mal an­nounce­ment declar­ing “100 per­cent of the caliphate” re­taken would be made some­time in the com­ing week.

The pres­i­dent’s re­marks to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a 79mem­ber, U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing IS largely glossed over his de­ci­sion to with­draw U.S. troops from Syria, the con­di­tions and lo­gis­tics of which are still un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Amer­i­can, French and Bri­tish forces are also op­er­at­ing in the area. The teams, which are not en­gaged in street fight­ing, are fir­ing ar­tillery and mor­tars at IS po­si­tions.

Be­fore the as­sault be­gan at sun­set Satur­day, civil­ians could be seen flee­ing the town. CNN spoke to one per­son who said many peo­ple were trapped, but num­bers were im­pos­si­ble to come by. SDF of­fi­cials say some 1,500 civil­ians could still be in­side.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said that since the SDF be­gan its of­fen­sive against IS in the area Sept. 10, some 1,279 IS gun­men and 678 SDF fight­ers have been killed. It said 401 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 144 chil­dren and teenagers, have been killed since then.

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