US-backed Iraqi forces capture Mosul bridge, close in on government buildings

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Iraqi special forces members talk to a suspected Daesh militant in Al Mansour district as they advance toward western Mosul on Monday. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
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Iraqi forces advance as they battle with Daesh militants in western Mosul on Monday. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
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An image taken February 19, 2017 by Pleiades Satellite shows a view of the second bridge of Mosul's five damaged or destroyed bridges across the Tigris River where battles are raging between Iraqi forces and Daesh militants. (AFP / CNES / Distribution Airbus DS)
Updated 06 March 2017
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US-backed Iraqi forces capture Mosul bridge, close in on government buildings

MOSUL/BAGHDAD, Iraq: US-backed Iraqi forces captured the second of Mosul’s five bridges on Monday, giving a boost to their onslaught on Islamic State’s remaining stronghold in the western part of the city.
All of Mosul’s five bridges over the Tigris have been destroyed but their capture facilitates the movement of forces progressing alongside the river,which cuts Mosul in two.
The bridge seized, Al-Hurriya, is the second after one located further south. Its capture shields the back of the forces advancing toward a nearby government buildings complex.
“We control the western end of the bridge,” said a senior media officer with Rapid Response, the elite unit of the Interior Ministry leading the charge toward the complex. 
Recapturing the site would help Iraqi forces attack the militants in the old city. It would also mark a symbolic step toward restoring state authority over Mosul, even though the buildings are destroyed and not being used by Daesh.
The battle of Mosul, which started on Oct. 17, will enter an more complicated phase in the densely populated old city.
Civilians have been displaced in greater numbers in the past days, as the fighting rages in the middle of residential neighborhoods where populations have already been suffering for months from food, water and electricity shortages.
Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris on Feb. 19.
Defeating Daesh in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the caliphate declared by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in 2014, over parts of Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi foreign ministry meanwhile expressed “deep relief” at US President Donald Trump’s decision to remove Iraq from a list of countries targeted in a US travel ban.
A US-led coalition is providing key air and ground support to the Iraqi forces in the battle of Mosul.
“The decision is an important step in the right direction, it consolidates the strategic alliance between Baghdad and Washington in many fields, and at their forefront war on terrorism,” the ministry said in a statement.
Trump is expected to sign a new executive order on Monday banning travel to the United States by citizens of six Muslim-majority nations after his controversial first attempt was blocked in the courts, a White House source said
Baghdadi, Daesh’s leader, proclaimed the caliphate from Mosul’s grand Nuri mosque in the old city center which is still under his followers’ control.
“In the coming hours our forces will raise the Iraqi flag over the governorate building,” Federal Police Brig. Gen. Shaalan Ali Saleh told Reuters.
The militants have barricaded streets with civilian vehicles and rigged them with explosives to hinder the advance of Iraqi forces were also met with sniper, machine gun and mortar fire, as well as explosives dropped from light drones.
Federal Police units who also taking part in the offensive are using similar drones to hit the militants.
The Iraqi military believes several thousand militants, including many who traveled from Western and central Asian countries, are hunkered down among the remaining civilian population, which aid agencies estimated to number 750,000 in western Mosul at the start of the latest offensive.
The militants are using suicide car bombers, snipers and booby traps to counter the offensive waged by the 100,000-strong force of Iraqi troops, Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups.
They were also reported to have fired rockets and mortar rounds filled with toxic agents from the western side of the city to the eastern, government-controlled side.
More than 40,000 fled their homes in the past week, bringing the total number of those of displaced since the start of the offensive to nearly 210,000, according to the United Nations.
Aid agencies have expressed concern that camps to accommodate people fleeing are nearly full.
The United Nations last month warned that more than 400,00 people, more than half the remaining population in western Mosul, could be displaced.


US, UK must support Kurds in Syria: British politicians

Updated 12 min 7 sec ago
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US, UK must support Kurds in Syria: British politicians

  • Kurds of northern Syria face an “exponential threat” from Turkey while Western allies in the fight against Daesh remain silent — British MP
  • The UN estimates 137,000 people left Afrin leaving only about 150,000 in the district. Only the Turkish Red Crescent and Turkish relief organizations can operate there

LONDON: The Kurds of northern Syria face an “exponential threat” from Turkey while Western allies in the fight against Daesh remain “silent,” Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of Parliament for the UK opposition Labor Party, told Arab News.

Speaking after visiting the Kurdish region of northern Syria this month, he said Kurdish communities in the area “feel abandoned” by the West in a “moment of real need.”

“While we were there, a place we’d been the day before was shelled by Turkey, so these things do go on and they do affect day-to-day lives. People seem genuinely very afraid,” he said.

Traveling via Baghdad and Irbil, before being escorted across the Syrian border by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), his delegation, which undertook the visit independently of the Labor Party, witnessed the devastation wreaked by Daesh and Turkish rockets in Kobani and other cities.

The route opened up a few months ago, Russell-Moyle said, creating a “window of opportunity” to “talk to the Kurds about what they were facing” and to “give hope to people that are struggling and are doing an amazing job.” 

Describing the democratic, secular, feminist state being established in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria as “impressive,” he said this is the “best” and “only” example of the kind in Syria and that Britain should be helping to rebuild it in the aftermath of the conflict. 

During a visit to Qamishli, Lord Glasman, a Labour peer who was part of the delegation, said: “We’re here for a long-term relationship with you, where we can support you against all the people who are trying to destroy your liberty.”

In March, the Turkish military overran the north Syrian city of Afrin following a bloody campaign to oust the YPG from the area. Dozens of Kurdish fighters lost their lives, including 26-year-old British national Anna Campbell, who'd been volunteering with the YPJ, the female arm of the YPG.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish president, has vowed to expand the offensive to other YPG-held areas, citing security concerns in response to US plans to help Kurdish militias create a 30,000-strong “border security force” to defend the Syrian-Turkish border against Daesh. 

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it defines as a terrorist organization, following a three-decade battle for Kurdish independence on Turkish soil.

The UK and US, wary of upsetting an important NATO ally, remain reluctant to get involved. A statement released by the US State Department in March said it was “committed to our NATO ally Turkey” with its “legitimate security concerns,” sentiments reiterated by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who insisted: “Turkey has the right to want to keep its borders secure.”

Kurdish forces are “infuriated” by the response, feeling that they have been let down by their allies, commentators said. Kurdish fighters make up the majority of the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against Daesh.

Josh Walker, a British YPG fighter who has since returned to the UK, said: “Kurds have been seeing this as another chapter in their long history of betrayal by major powers; they are especially disappointed considering their major contribution to the near-defeat of ISIS, which was only prevented from being total defeat by Turkish intervention.”

Since the assault on Afrin, the YPG has redeployed hundreds of troops from the frontlines against Daesh to defend the city on the other side of Syria. Turkey’s “increasingly belligerent” position toward the Kurds has thrown up “contradictions” for UK and US foreign policy in Syria, said Robert Lowe, deputy director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economic and Political Sciences.

“Their overriding priority is to defeat ISIS (Daesh) and associated groups. That’s been hurt by the Turkish invasion and made their continuing operations to defeat ISIS, or clear out what’s left of them, more difficult because the Kurds have had to move resources.

“The US and the UK are only prepared to go so far in their criticism of Turkey,” he said. “They have urged restraint … but also haven’t been as critical as they might have been.”

Russell-Moyle said the UK needed to be “stepping up, not stepping away.” The recent decision taken by Theresa May, UK prime minister, to engage in US-orchestrated airstrikes targeting the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons facilities without parliamentary approval was a “very risky strategy,” he said. 

To bring an end to this conflict “we should be building up societies,” he said, and “supporting a civil population that will never allow it to happen again.”

In Rojava, and the cantons of Kobani, Cizre and Afrin, Kurdish communities have embarked on a political project to form the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, establishing a system of government based on democratic confederalism, ecology and gender equality. Councils set up by local people, have been established, based on equal representation of minority groups in the area.

Elif Gun, from the Kurdistan Students Union in the UK, described a “system of stateless democracy, working from bottom up, with power handed and divided.

“It is the only form of democracy and state that offers real change to the people and gives the power of decision making to the people.”