Mosul (Iraq): Iraqi security forces have seized control of more than a third of west Mosul, a commander said Sunday, after a week of steady gains in their battle to retake the city from the Islamic State group.
Fierce fighting has shaken Mosul in recent days as thousands of US-backed Iraqi soldiers and police battle to reclaim the country’s second city. A renewed push against the jihadists launched last Sunday has seen IS forced from several neighbourhoods and key sites, including the main local government headquarters and the famed Mosul museum.
Speaking to AFP on Sunday, Staff Major General Maan al-Saadi of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service said “more than a third” of west Mosul was now under the control of security forces.
CTS forces were battling IS inside the Mosul al-Jadida and Al-Aghawat areas on Sunday, Saadi said, adding that he expected the fighting there to be completed in the coming hours. Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) said that forces from the Rapid Response Division, another special forces unit, and the federal police were also attacking the Bab al-Toub area on the edge of Mosul’s Old City.
“The battle is not easy... we are fighting an irregular enemy who hides among the citizens and uses tactics of booby-trapping, explosions and suicide bombers, and the operation is taking place with precision to preserve the lives of the citizens,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the JOC, told AFP.
Still, he said, IS resistance “has begun to weaken in a big way”. IS seized Mosul in mid-2014 when the jihadist group swept across areas north and west of Baghdad, taking control of swathes of territory and declaring a cross-border “caliphate” in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
Backed by a US-led air strikes and other support, Iraqi forces have since retaken much of the territory they lost. The operation to recapture Mosul—then the last Iraqi city under IS control—was launched in October.
After recapturing the east of the city, Iraqi forces last month set their sites on the west, where hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped. Northwest of Mosul advancing Iraqi forces also took the infamous Badush prison this week, announcing on Saturday they had uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of hundreds of people executed by the jihadists.
The Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces found “a large mass grave containing the remains of around 500 civilian prisoners in (Badush) prison who were executed by (IS) gangs,” the military said. According to Human Rights Watch, IS gunmen executed up to 600 inmates from the prison in June 2014, forcing them to kneel along a nearby ravine and then shooting them with assault rifles.
The jihadists have committed widespread atrocities in areas under their control and claimed responsibility for a series of deadly attacks in Western cities and elsewhere. The US-led coalition launched air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and is providing a range of support to allied forces in both countries.
In Syria the coalition is backing an Arab-Kurdish alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that is pushing towards the jihadists’ de facto capital Raqa. Turkish-backed rebels are also advancing against IS in northern Syria, as are government troops supported by Russia.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Sunday that fighting was ongoing on several fronts, including in eastern Aleppo province where the jihadists forced regime troops to fall back from the outskirts of the Jarrah military airport.
Russian and Syrian strikes hit IS-held areas in the province, the Britain-based monitor said, with eight civilians, mostly from the same family, killed in a strike on the village of Maskanah. SDF forces were advancing slowly east of Raqa, it said, and several coalition air strikes hit the outskirts of the city early on Sunday.
IS has hit back at the increasing pressure with a wave of deadly attacks on civilians, often carried out by suicide bombers. In one of the bloodiest attacks ever in Syria’s capital, twin bombs targeting Shiite pilgrims killed dozens of people in Damascus on Saturday, most of them Iraqi pilgrims.
After giving an initial number of 59 dead, the Observatory on Sunday said the toll from the attack had risen to 74 after many of the wounded died. Among the victims were 43 Iraqi pilgrims, 11 Syrian civilians and 20 members of pro-government security forces, it said.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but Shiite shrines have been a frequent target of attack for Sunni extremists of IS and Al-Qaeda.