Archive for August, 2017
January 15, 2017
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces have won a string of swift territorial gains in Mosul in the fight against the Islamic State group after months of slow progress, with a senior officer on Saturday laying claim to a cluster of buildings inside Mosul University and another edge of a bridge.
Iraqi forces now control the eastern sides of three of the city’s five bridges that span the Tigris River connecting Mosul’s east to west. Warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition bombed the city’s bridges late last year in an effort to isolate IS fighters in the city’s east by disrupting resupply routes.
At Mosul University, senior commanders said Iraqi forces had secured more than half of the campus Saturday amid stiff resistance, but clashes were ongoing into the afternoon. Iraqi forces entered the university from the southeast Friday morning and by nightfall had secured a handful of buildings, Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil and Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi said on a tour of the university Saturday.
“We watched all the IS fighters gather in that building, so we blew it up,” said special forces Sgt. Maj. Haytham Ghani pointing to one of the blackened technical college buildings where charred desks could be seen inside. “You can still see some of their corpses.”
Thick clouds of black smoke rose from the middle of the sprawling complex Saturday morning. By afternoon, clashes had intensified with volleys of sniper and mortar fire targeting the advancing Iraqi forces. Convoys of Iraqi Humvees snaked through the campus, pausing for artillery and airstrikes to clear snipers perched within classrooms, dormitories and behind the trees that line the campus streets.
IS fighters overran Mosul in the summer of 2014, announcing from there their self-styled “caliphate” after taking a large swath of Iraq and Syria in a lightning surge. Access to the city’s central bank, a large taxable civilian population and nearby oilfields quickly made IS the world’s wealthiest terrorist group.
Yet even as a punishing campaign of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes has pushed the militants underground, IS leaders continued to use Mosul as a key logistical hub for planning meetings. If recaptured by the Iraqi forces, IS territory in Iraq that once stretched across a third of the country would be reduced to small pockets in the north and west that troops will likely be able to mop up relatively quickly.
The massive operation to retake Mosul from IS was launched in October. Since then Iraqi forces have slowly clawed back more than a third of the city. IS maintains has tight control of the city’s western half where Iraqi forces will likely encounter another wave of heavy IS resistance. The west of the city is home to some of Mosul’s densest neighborhoods and an estimated 700,000 civilians.
As Iraqi forces have closed in on the Tigris that roughly divides Mosul into eastern and western halves, their pace has quickened. IS defenses in the city’s east appear to be thinning and unlike in the surrounding neighborhoods, Iraqi officers said they believe Mosul University and recently retaken government buildings are largely empty of civilians — allowing them to use air cover more liberally.
Iraqi soldiers at Mosul University said while they were still coming under heavy small arms fire, IS resistance was significantly less than they faced during the first weeks of the Mosul operation. “We were targeted with only four car bombs where before (IS) would send 20 in one day,” special forces Lt. Zain al-Abadeen said. “And they aren’t armored like before, they’re just using civilian cars.”
Medics operating a small field hospital in eastern Mosul said civilian casualties have dropped significantly over the past three days as Iraqi forces moved into government complexes like the university rather than dense civilian neighborhoods.
Also Saturday, IS launched its biggest assault in a year on government-held areas of the contested Syrian city of Deir el-Zour in an attempt to maintain a grip on the eastern stretch of the neighboring country where the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa lies.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.
January 11, 2017
Near continuous violence, absence of government assistance and a social fabric that is spiraling out of control has made Iraq’s women face some of the highest divorce rates in the world, as a frightening number of them are widowed daily due to the ongoing Iraqi government offensive to recapture Mosul from Daesh.
As part of a food security survey conducted by the official Iraqi Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), the review showed that almost two million Iraqi women were either divorced or widowed.
On Monday, Abdulzahra Al-Hindawi, the spokesman for the Iraqi planning ministry, was cited by Alkhaleej Online as confirming the above: “The number of divorcees and widows throughout Iraq in general has now risen to 1,983,000.”
Al-Hindawi suggested that this number could be significantly higher as “the survey did not include the two provinces of Ninawa and Anbar, as well as a number of districts of Kirkuk and Salahuddin.”
The four provinces mentioned by the official spokesman are some of those that have witnessed some of the heaviest fighting between US-backed Iraqi government troops and allied Shia jihadists on one side, with Daesh extremists on the other.
In these and other areas, Shia militants fighting under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitary organization and within the police and army, have committed grave war crimes against mostly Sunni Arab civilians.
An example of this are the almost 640 men from Saqlawiyah near Fallujah still unaccounted for after Iran-backed militants abducted them last summer during an Iraqi government offensive. These men almost certainly left behind families that were dependant on them.
Aside from the military confrontations and terrorism, Iraq is also facing rising rates of domestic violence against women. Women are often disadvantaged in Iraq, and their status in society has actually decreased substantially since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Rampant nepotism, corruption and chronic mismanagement has led to an Iraqi economy that is suffering, particularly with the drastic reduction in oil prices in recent years. Social problems relating to unemployment and poverty have led to breakdowns of marriages, and increased incidences of violence against women.
Source: Middle East Monitor.
January 09, 2017
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi troops in Mosul have battled their way to the Tigris River running through the center of town, marking a milestone in the nearly three-month-old offensive aimed at reclaiming the northern city from Islamic State militants.
Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir Rasheed Yar Allah said special forces reached the river late Sunday and now control the eastern side of one of the city’s five bridges, all of which have been disabled by U.S.-led airstrikes in support of the offensive.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the recent advances were “big achievements for all the factions of the Iraqi security forces.” “Thank God, our forces are liberating neighborhood after neighborhood,” he said Monday in a joint press conference with his Jordanian counterpart in Baghdad.
In Mosul, Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the special forces told The Associated Press that troops were battling IS in the Baladiyat and Sukar neighborhoods after driving the extremists out of Muthana and Rifaq the day before. He said Iraqi forces repelled an overnight attack, killing 37 militants, without elaborating.
The Mosul offensive resumed last month after a two-week lull due to stiff IS resistance and bad weather. Since then, Iraqi forces have recaptured new areas in the city’s eastern half after receiving enforcements.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and the extremist group’s last major urban bastion in the country. Iraqi special forces have done most of the fighting within the city, while Iraqi troops have advanced on it from different sides. Kurdish forces and Shiite militias have driven IS from surrounding areas and sought to cut off militant escape routes.
Mosul fell to IS in the summer of 2014, when the extremists swept across much of northern and western Iraq. Iraqi forces have gradually retaken most of that territory over the past three years, and outside of Mosul the militants are largely confined to smaller towns and villages.
BAGHDAD – Baghdad’s forces retook a series of villages from the Islamic State group in western Iraq as they fought to oust it from territory near the Syrian border, officers said Friday.
The operation, which aims to recapture the towns of Rawa, Aanah and Al-Qaim — the last main populated areas held by IS in Anbar province — was launched on Thursday.
“Our military units liberated seven villages from Daesh control between the town of Haditha and the town of Aanah,” said Staff Major General Qassem al-Mohammedi, the head of the Jazeera Operations Command, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Staff Major General Noman Abed al-Zobai, the commander of the 7th Division, said that seven villages had been recaptured, and government forces had reached the outskirts of Al-Sagra, an area southeast of Aanah.
Iraqi forces have retaken Ramadi and Fallujah, the two main cities in Anbar province, but security in recaptured areas remains precarious.
Anbar is a vast province that stretches from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad, and has a long history of insurgent activity.
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces have since regained much of the territory they lost.
They are now fighting to recapture Mosul, the last Iraqi city where IS holds signficant ground.
But the recapture of major population centres held by IS will not mark the end of the conflict against them. The jihadists are still able to carry out frequent bombings in government-controlled areas, and are likely to turn increasingly to such tactics as they lose territory.
Source: Middle East Online.
December 31, 2016
BARTELLA, Iraq (AP) — There were no big New Year’s celebrations for the Iraqi men, women and children who narrowly escaped the fighting in Mosul, only to wait for hours under armed guard while the fighting-age males among them were cleared of links to the Islamic State.
The lucky ones would go with their families to one of the wind-swept camps for displaced Iraqis, where they will endure the remainder of northern Iraq’s bitterly cold winter in tents and learn to survive on insufficient supplies of food, heating oil and blankets.
Those whose names were found on the wanted list would be detained, interrogated and likely face trial. Many of the Iraqis told of going hungry in Mosul for weeks, surviving on a single daily meal and drinking murky water extracted from recently dug wells. There was no formula for their small children, who survived on bread soaked in tea or soup made of rice or crushed wheat. Life was miserable without electricity or medical care. They watched mortar shells or stray bullets kill their relatives and neighbors.
They don’t know when they will go home, but are thankful. “The camp is the lesser of two evils. Life in Mosul now kills you,” said 33-year-old English teacher Ahmed Abu Karam, from the IS-held Karama neighborhood east of the Tigris River. “What happens in 2017 is in the hands of God alone, but let me tell you this: My escape, thanks be to God, has given me a new life.”
Abu Karam was among about 200 men ordered by grim faced Iraqi soldiers to squat outside a row of abandoned stores on a main road close to the mainly Christian town of Bartella near Mosul. It is the gathering point for the mainly Sunni residents who fled Mosul to avoid being killed in the crossfire between government troops and IS militants or because they ran out of food and money.
The ground where they gathered was wet from a heavy downpour a few days before and scattered with trash. Many men sported long beards they had to grow under IS rule, but some were shaving off their facial hair on Saturday as they waited. As the men were processed, the women and children sat on buses. The men were expected to be transferred separately, many in the back of army trucks, one of which flew a Shiite banner.
“We Sunnis are marginalized,” said Abu Karam. “The security forces ran away and left us with Daesh in 2014. Now they suspect us of being terrorists,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. Iraq’s Shiite-dominated military and security forces launched a new offensive in Mosul on Thursday, breaking a two-week lull in fighting that began in mid-October, more than two years after Iraq’s military and police melted away in the face of an IS blitz across northern and western Iraq.
The renewed fighting in Mosul has forced hundreds of civilians to flee, joining an estimated 120,000 who already left. Most gathered in Bartella on Saturday came from neighborhoods where the latest fighting is taking place.
Electrician Ibrahim Saleh and his family escaped Mosul’s Quds neighborhood on Friday and spent the night at the home of “kind strangers” in a suburb just east of the city. He said he, his wife and children endured most of the last two months hiding under their house’s staircase for fear of shelling.
“We have survived only by divine intervention,” he said. The camps for Iraqis displaced by the fighting in and around Mosul are mostly south and east of the city in Nineveh province and in the nearby self-ruled Kurdish region. There, many complain of rain and other severe winter conditions, or inadequate supplies of heating oil and medicines.
But in one of the larger camps for the displaced in the Kurdish region — Hassan Sham — a local non-governmental organization provided a welcome change from the drab daily life there by throwing a New Year’s party for the children, complete with clowns and face painting.
But the children’s excitement did little to conceal the camp’s grim realities, or erode the painful memories of life under IS and the horrors of war in Mosul since October. Shortly before the party began, camp residents pushed and shoved over blankets and clothes distributed by local donors. Some spoke of feeling imprisoned in the camp, unable to secure a sponsor allowing them to live in the urban bustle of nearby Irbil, the Kurdish region’s capital.
Akram Ali, a former cameraman for a Mosul TV channel, now makes less than 10 dollars a day cutting hair, but still enough to buy fresh vegetables and fruit to supplement the food handouts he, his wife and four children get from camp organizers.
“We died 20 times every day when we lived under fire in Mosul,” he recounted emotionally. “Under Daesh, it was oppression, tragedies, persecution and suffering. I can do without food and water, as long as I and my family are safe.”
Fellow camp resident Mustafa Mahmoud, a 21-year-old who quit school when IS took over his native Mosul in 2014, sees little to celebrate with the arrival of 2017. Since arriving at the camp six weeks ago, he goes to bed at 7 or 8 every evening.
“Nothing will change tonight,” he said.
December 31, 2016
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — The 19-year-old resident of Mosul pulled up his shirt and showed a festering wound on his back. It came, he said, from Iraqi troops who detained him for three days and beat him, trying to get him to confess to belong to the Islamic State group.
His story and similar stories by others only deepen worries among many of Mosul’s mainly Sunni residents over what happens when the extremist group is defeated and Baghdad’s Shiite-led government resumes control.
Almost all those fleeing the city say they are relieved to see the end of the Sunni extremists’ grip. But they also have bad memories of Baghdad’s rule in the past. Mosul’s Sunnis long complained that the Shiite-dominated security forces treated them with suspicion and targeted them in indiscriminate crackdowns. They say the government intentionally neglect them, focusing on Shiite areas in the south, leaving Iraq’s second largest city undeveloped and economically stagnant.
Mohammed Ayad said he was detained by troops earlier this month when he sneaked from his home neighborhood, which is under IS control, across the Tigris River into a district recaptured by the military. He intended to buy cigarettes to sell back in his neighborhood, where IS bans smoking.
“They arrested me while sleeping at friend’s house on the east side,” he said. “They suspected me when I showed them my ID that says I live on the other side,” said Ayad. His interrogators beat him, asking him repeatedly when he joined IS. After they released him, he went to a camp of displaced people south of Mosul.
Several other Mosul residents at the camp said Federal Police, a Shiite-dominated force, barred them from returning to their homes in recaptured areas, now that they are relatively safe. A group of Sunnis who fled the recently freed town of Tal Abta, west of Mosul, said they too were barred by Shiite militias from returning.
“I feel like a third class citizen, like an Indian who will now have to live in a reservation,” said one bearded Mosul resident who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. “It is like they jailed us here,” he said of the camp.
There have been no reports of major or systematic abuse of Mosul residents by the military or security forces, which have been fighting since October to recapture the city. That’s a contrast to other former IS-held areas, where Shiite fighters are accused of pushing out or otherwise abusing Sunnis. The military denies torturing suspects and insists no one is denied permission to return to their homes.
But there is a recognition that Baghdad needs to reach out to Sunnis. “I really cannot blame them for being apprehensive about the return of government rule,” said a top military commander in Mosul, who agreed to discuss the subject in return for anonymity.
“It is their right to feel that way. Before Daesh, there was too much corruption, and the security forces did nothing to help people,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been sending reconciliatory messages to Iraq’s minority Sunnis, speaking of a country reunited by the fight against IS. “Societal reconciliation is the appropriate answer to Daesh,” he said recently.
The military in Mosul has reached out to residents with goodwill gestures, including distributing food and water and treating wounded or ailing residents in their field hospitals. They have helped those wishing to leave the city. Children flash the “V’ for victory signs to soldiers and yell “Mansoureen,” or “may you be victorious,” as they drive by in their Humvees.
“No matter how many times I say ‘thank you’ I can never give you your due,” one woman told a senior army general Thursday as he toured her frontline Mosul neighborhood. But there is also mutual suspicion and apprehension. Faced with consistent IS bombing and shootings in recaptured areas, the military fears sympathizers and sleeper cells among the population.
“All a Daesh member has to do is take off his clothes and shave his beard and he becomes a regular citizen” said the military commander in Mosul. “That’s why we cannot drop our guard.” The army’s security measures with the population don’t help ease any ill-feeling.
Every day, hundreds of men, women, children and elderly fleeing the city wait for hours in the biting cold by a main road outside Mosul while security officials run their names through a database for any possible IS links.
There are no chairs or benches and nothing to shelter them from rain and wind. A shortage of buses means that most of those cleared are loaded onto army trucks, where they stand with nothing to hold on except each other, to be taken to camps.
Conditions are tough for those who remain in recaptured Mosul neighborhoods as well. Piles of trash are everywhere and green sewage water runs on the side of many streets. Water and power are still out.
Some residents close off their streets with makeshift barriers against suicide car bombs, and many motorists still fly a white flag, signs of the fragile security. Some 120,000 people have fled Mosul since the offensive began. The resources of the cash-strapped government are limited. It is trying to provide medical care, food, water and heating fuel to those staying put in the city and those who fled. But distribution has been chaotic, leaving some without, and it excludes residents of areas close to the frontline.
Mosul hospital clerk Waad Amin said he’s glad the extremists are gone. While he’s wary of the government, “No matter what, they are still better than Daesh,” he said. But “it is so bad here, it’s beyond description,” he said of government-held parts of Mosul. The 53-year-old father of six works in a government clinic and hasn’t been paid for nearly two years.
Amin is also worried that a wave of score-settling will break out among residents. Security forces have to keep control, but at the same time not get dragged in by informants wrongly accusing others of being IS members, he said.
“The government needs to have a security outpost in every neighborhood. If not, the situation will be very dire. They cannot leave us to kill each other, as they did before Daesh took the city.” Mosul long had a reputation as a bastion of Islamic militancy. Before IS captured it in 2014, the group’s fighters operated freely in some areas, attacking security forces and oil facilities. Militants ran protection rackets, and local government corruption was rampant. Authorities were seen as failing to dealing effectively with criminals and militants.
Ahmed Mohammed Hussein, a 52-year-old Mosul University employee, blames those government failures for the IS takeover of the city in June 2014. It has left him bitter and suspicious ever since. He spoke in a camp for the displaced in the northern city of Irbil, where he fled with his family. Nearby, his wife stood in line with other women to receive heating oil rations.
“If they come back and wipe away my tears, pat me on the head and help me get back my life, then they are all welcome,” he said of the government. “But they will not be welcome if it’s all going to be about marginalization again.”
December 29, 2016
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi troops backed by U.S.-led airstrikes pushed deeper into eastern Mosul on Thursday in a multi-pronged assault after a two-week lull in the operation to retake the Islamic State-held city.
Elite special forces pushed into the Karama and Quds neighborhoods, while army troops and federal police advanced into nearby Intisar, Salam and Sumor neighborhoods. Smoke rose across the city as explosions and machine gun fire echoed through the streets.
Stiff resistance by the militants, civilians trapped inside their houses and bad weather have slowed advances in the more than two-month-old offensive to recapture Iraq’s second largest city, the extremist group’s last urban bastion in the country. It is the biggest Iraqi military operation since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, commander of the special forces in eastern Mosul, said his forces have been bolstered by reinforcements and are now less than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Tigris River, which slices the city in half. A U.S.-led coalition airstrike this week destroyed the last remaining bridge over the river.
The special forces, officially known as the Counter Terrorism Service, have done most of the fighting, pushing in from the east. But regular army troops on the city’s southeast and northern edges, as well as militarized federal police farther west, have not moved in weeks, unable to penetrate the city.
The troops have faced grueling urban fighting, often house to house against IS militants who have had more than two years to dig in and prepare. Even in districts that have been recaptured, Iraqi troops have faced surprise attacks, shelling and car bombs. The extremists have launched more than 900 car bombs against Iraqi troops in and around Mosul. Al-Saadi said 260 targeted his men.
He said he expected Iraqi forces would drive IS from Mosul and the rest of Nineveh province within three months. Iraqi leaders had previously vowed to drive the extremists from Mosul by the end of the year.
IS captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, when it swept across much of northern and central Iraq, and the group’s leader declared the establishment of its self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque.
The city is still home to around a million people. Some 120,000 have fled since the operation began on Oct. 17, according to the United Nations.