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IS exploits rain, hits Iraqi militias – Mosul residents fear cold, hunger of siege

A displaced Iraqi boy, who fl ed the violence in the Iraqi northern city of Mosul as a result of a planned operation to retake the city from jihadists, poses on Dec 3 at Hasan Sham refugee camp, in the eponym village, some 40 kms east of Arbil. (AFP)
A displaced Iraqi boy, who fl ed the violence in the Iraqi northern city of Mosul as a result of a planned operation to retake the city from jihadists, poses on Dec 3 at Hasan Sham refugee camp, in the eponym village, some 40 kms east of Arbil. (AFP)

BAGHDAD, Dec 3, (Agencies): Islamic State militants have staged near simultaneous attacks on positions of state-sanctioned militias west and south of Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, apparently taking advantage of bad weather conditions that normally disrupt air support, two militia officials said on Saturday. One official said IS militants breached the defenses of Shiite militiamen at a village west of the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar. Reached by telephone near Tal Afar, he said the attack on the village of Sharea took place Friday night.

Fighting continued into Saturday, he added, without giving details. On Saturday, an IS statement said the attack on the village began with a suicide car bombing that killed and wounded “dozens” of militiamen. A “multi-pronged” attack on the village followed, forcing the militiamen to flee, it added. IS fighters seized from the militiamen nine allterrain vehicles fitted with machine guns, two Humvees, weapons and munitions, according to the statement. In the second attack, the militants targeted a Sunni tribal militia deployed in the town of Shirqat south of Mosul on Friday night, according to an official from the militia. He gave no details and IS had no immediate word on the attack. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. Bad weather persisted in northern Iraq on Saturday, with thick fog, rain and a dust storm.

Such conditions normally reduce to a minimum air activity by the Iraqi military or the allied US-led coalition. The Shiite militias last month seized the airstrip just outside Tal Afar, but no attack has yet been launched to retake the city itself. Both Tal Afar and Mosul were captured by IS in 2014 as part of a blitz by the extremist group that gave them control over large swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq.

The Iraqi government in October launched a massive campaign to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city and the last major urban center still held by IS in Iraq. Also on Saturday, two bombs went off at separate Baghdad locations, killing nine people and wounding 24, according to police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack, but Iraqi authorities routinely blame IS for bombings. Baghdad has experienced similar attacks on a near-daily basis for more than a decade.

No food or fuel has reached Mosul in nearly a week and the onset of rain and cold weather threatens a tough winter for more than a million people still in Islamic State-held areas of the city, residents said on Saturday. Iraqi troops waging a six-week-old offensive against the militants controlling Mosul have advanced into eastern city districts, while other forces have sealed Mosul’s southern and northern  govapproaches and 10 days ago blocked the road west. But their advance has been hampered by waves of counter-attacks from the ultra-hardline Islamists who have controlled the city since mid- 2014 and built a network of tunnels in preparation for their defence of north Iraq’s largest city. The slow progress means the campaign is likely to drag on throughout the winter, and has prompted warnings from aid groups that civilians face a near complete siege in the coming months. A trader in Mosul, speaking by telephone, said no new food or fuel supplies had reached the city since Sunday. Despite attempts by the militants to keep prices stable, and the arrest last week of dozens of shopkeepers accused of hiking prices, the trader said food had become more expensive and fuel prices had tripled.

“We’ve been living under a real state of siege for a week,” said one resident of west Mosul, several miles (km) from the frontline neighbourhoods on the east bank of the Tigris river. “Two days ago the electricity generator supplying the neighbourhood stopped working because of lack of fuel. Water is cut and food prices have risen and it’s terribly cold. We fear the days ahead will be much worse”. A pipeline supplying water to around 650,000 people in Mosul was hit during fighting this week between the army and Islamic State. A local official said it could not be fixed because the damage was in an area still being fought over. Winter conditions will also hit the nearly 80,000 people registered by the United Nations as displaced since the start of the Mosul campaign. That number excludes many thousands more who were forcibly moved by Islamic State, or fled from the fighting deeper into territory under its control.

Islamic State authorities, trying to portray a sense of normality, released pictures which they said showed a Mosul market on Friday. It showed a crowd of people and a stall selling vegetable oil and canned food but no fresh produce. They also said they carried out several counter attacks in the last 24 hours against Iraqi troops in eastern Mosul and the mainly Shi’ite Popular Mobilisation forces who have taken territory to the west of the city. Amaq news agency, which is close to Islamic State, said they retook half of the Shaimaa district in southeast of the city on Friday, destroyed four army bases in the eastern al- Qadisiya al-Thaniya neighbourhood and seized ammunition from fleeing soldiers in al-Bakr district, also in the east. A source in the Counter Terrorism Services, which are spearheading the army offensive, said Islamic State exploited the bad weather and cloud cover, which prevented air support from a US-led international coalition. He said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived. “This is not the first time it happens. We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said. Amaq also said Islamic State fighters waged attacks on Saturday against the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units near the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, showing footage of two damaged vehicles, one with interior ministry markings on it. A spokesman for the militias said those attacks had been repelled. “DAESH attacked at dawn to try to control the village Tal Zalat,” said Karim Nouri. “Clashes continued for two hours, until DAESH withdrew, leaving bodies (of dead fighters) behind.”

In Baghdad, a car bomb blew up in a crowded market in the centre of the city on Saturday, killing seven people and wounding 15, police and medical sources said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic State fighters have stepped up attacks in the Iraqi capital and other cities since the start of the Mosul operations. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched the Mosul offensive on Oct 17, aiming to crush Islamic State in the largest city it controls in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

The campaign pits a 100,000-strong US-backed coalition of army troops, special forces, federal police, Kurdish fighters and the Popular Mobilisation forces against a few thousand militants in the city. Defeat would deal a heavy blow to Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, announced by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Mosul mosque two years ago.

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