Iraq, US offer differing accounts of Mosul progress

Displaced Iraqis receive aid rations at the Hammam Al-Alil camp, south of Mosul. (AFP)
Updated 17 March 2017
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Iraq, US offer differing accounts of Mosul progress

MOSUL: Iraqi and US commanders offered conflicting accounts Thursday of progress in western Mosul, where US-backed Iraqi forces have been battling the Daesh group for nearly a month as they try to retake the remainder of the city.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the American commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq, said the troops had recaptured “a little over a third” of neighborhoods west of the Tigris River, while Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman, said they had retaken up to 60 percent, with fighting still underway. Iraq declared eastern Mosul “fully liberated” in January.
Iraqi officials have overstated gains in the past, declaring areas liberated from Daesh militants only to see the resumption of fighting or militant attacks. The extremists have targeted eastern Mosul with bombings and other attacks on several occasions in recent weeks.
Frontline commanders meanwhile said progress has been slow over the past week, with troops advancing just a few hundred meters in the face of Daesh car bomb attacks.
Lt. Ahmed Mahmoud of the militarized Federal Police said his unit was waiting until special forces cleared nearby neighborhoods before moving in to hold the territory. He spoke near Mosul’s antiquities museum, which Iraqi forces recaptured earlier this month.
He said Iraqi forces had launched three coordinated thrusts in western Mosul, hoping to overwhelm Daesh defenses.
The militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city when they swept across the country’s north in the summer of 2014. Iraqi forces have gradually clawed back territory since then and launched a massive operation to retake Mosul in October.
Despite US air support, the Iraqi advance has been slowed by snipers, roadside explosives and suicide car and truck bombs.
A suicide attacker driving a bulldozer rigged with explosives plowed through the Federal Police’s front line on Wednesday, killing more than 10 soldiers and wounding several others, according to a Federal Police medic who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Iraq’s military does not release casualty figures.
“Federal police and Rapid Response units imposed their complete control over the Al-Basha Mosque... and the Bab Al-Saray market in the Old City,” Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat, a federal police commander, said in a statement.
Iraqi forces advanced into the Old City and around Al-Nuri Mosque on Friday trying to seal off a key road to prevent militants sending in suicide bombers.
A helicopter fired rockets into the area and heavy gunfire and mortar blasts echoed as troops fought in districts near the mosque, where Daesh’s black flag hangs from its leaning minaret.
“Federal police and rapid response forces completely control the mosque, Al-Adala street and Bab Al-Saray market inside the Old City,” a federal police spokesman said. “Forces are trying to isolate the Old City area from all sides and then start an offensive from all sides.”
From a distance, the exhausted Iraqis fleeing parts of Mosul controlled by Daesh appeared to be pushing their worldly possessions on handcarts.
By the time they reached Reuters journalists it was clear that their cargo was far more precious and more tragic. One man lifted a grubby, fluffy blanket to reveal the dust and blood-covered body of a child, one of several piled up on the cart.
“This is my son. He is gone,” he said, describing how his family’s home had been hit by an airstrike. Iraqi helicopters have been pounding west Mosul with missiles.
“This happened because of airstrikes. These were in their homes and the airstrikes killed them,” the man said, showing other small bodies, cut by shrapnel or debris, on the cart.
He said the strike had happened three days earlier close to Mosul’s train station, an area the family had only just moved to after fleeing their home in the Wadi Hajar neighborhood where fighting had become too intense.
Other families trekking down the road toward buses sent to take civilians to camps used similar carts to transport elderly relatives.
They will join the 255,000 or so people already displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas since October when the US-backed push began — creating a huge challenge for aid agencies delivering food and shelter to people who have known years of suffering.


Daesh leader Baghdadi, world’s ‘most wanted’, sought in Syria offensive

Updated 2 min 22 sec ago
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Daesh leader Baghdadi, world’s ‘most wanted’, sought in Syria offensive

PARIS: US-backed forces have launched an offensive on Daesh’s last stronghold in eastern Syria, but the man dubbed the world’s “most wanted” — Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — could yet again slip through the net, experts warn.
There have been recurring reports of Baghdadi being killed or injured, but the elusive leader, whose only known public appearance dates to July 2014 when he proclaimed a cross-border caliphate from the pulpit of a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul, is believed to be still alive.
In August, he resurfaced in a purported new audio recording in which he urged his followers to keep up the fight despite Daesh having lost around 90 percent of the territory it held at the height of its reign of terror.
He also urged them to continue waging lone-wolf attacks in the West.
In May, a senior Iraqi intelligence official told AFP that Baghdadi had been moving discreetly between villages and towns east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor province, near the Iraqi border.
He was traveling in a small group of “four or five people” including male relatives, the official said.
Iraqi political commentator Hisham Al-Hashemi, an expert on the Sunni extremist group, said his security sources told him Baghdadi was hiding out in the Syrian desert and regularly moved between Al-Baaj in northwest Iraq and Hajjin in Syria’s southeast.
As the caliphate crumbled, Iraqi forces and coalition-backed forces in Syria have killed or captured several Daesh leaders.
On Wednesday an Iraqi presented as Baghdadi’s deputy, Ismail Alwan Salman Al-Ithawi, was sentenced to death by a court in Iraq after being apprehended in Turkey and extradited as part of a joint Turkish-Iraqi-US operation.
In May, Iraqi forces claimed to have captured five top Daesh commanders in a cross-border sting.
The US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance launched Operation Roundup last week, the third phase of a year-old operation to clear southeastern Syria of its last Daesh holdouts, in an area around the Euphrates extending around 50 kilometers (30 miles) into Syria.
“This is the last bastion for Daesh’s mercenaries,” Zaradasht Kobani, a Kurdish commander with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told AFP.
“We will eliminate them here,” he said.
But reeling in Baghdadi will not be simple, said Hassan Hassan, a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University in Washington.
“He and his group learned from previous mistakes that led to the killing of the top two leaders in 2010, (al-Baghdadi’s predecessor) Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, and his war minister Abu Hamza Al-MuHajjir,” Hassan told AFP.
“This means that only a very few and highly-trusted people know where he is.”
The mountains, desert, river valleys and villages of the border area provide “several possible hideouts,” Hassan noted.
The anti-Daesh coalition may be hoping Baghdadi again gives away his whereabouts by mistake, as in November 2016 when Iraqi forces fighting to retake Mosul from Daesh picked up on a short radio exchange between him and his men.
“He spoke for 45 seconds and then his guards took the radio from him,” a senior Kurdish official who heard the call told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which revealed the near-miss in January.
“They realized what he had done,” the official added, saying the call was traced to a village west of Mosul.
If Baghdadi does manage to outfox the coalition, he could join one of Daesh’s underground cells in Iraq or Syria.
Al-Hashemi estimates that around 2,000 Daesh extremists are still active in Iraq and around 3,000 in eastern Syria, a large proportion of them foreigners.
He believes Operation Roundup could drive hundreds of fighters back across the border into Iraq.