Thursday , September 20 2018

Iraqi troops battle IS for last town south of Mosul – Bombs hit convoy, kill 18

Iraqis (left), speak with their relatives who were displaced from Mosul as they come to visit them at a refugee camp in the Khazir region between Arbil and Mosul on Nov 5. (AFP)
Iraqis (left), speak with their relatives who were displaced from Mosul as they come to visit them at a refugee camp in the Khazir region between Arbil and Mosul on Nov 5. (AFP)

NEAR HAMMAM AL-ALIL, Iraq, Nov 5, (RTRS): Iraqi troops advancing towards Mosul battled on Saturday for the last town left between them and the Islamic State stronghold to the north, which is already under assault from special forces fighting inside the city’s eastern districts.

Saturday’s attack on Hammam al-Alil, about 15 kms (10 miles) south of Mosul, targeted a force of at least 70 Islamic State fighters in the Tigris river town, commander of the Mosul operations Major-General Najm al-Jabouri said.

Jabouri said the assault began around 10:00 am (0700 GMT) and some militants had tried to escape across the river, although others put up heavy resistance and the troops had thwarted three attempted suicide car bombings.

“(The battle) is very important — it’s the last town for us before Mosul,” Jabouri told reporters. Iraqi helicopters were supporting the army, he said, backed also by jets from a US-led air coalition which had been hitting Islamic State targets in the town for several days.

A military statement said security forces had raised the Iraqi flag over a government building in the town, but did not say whether it was fully under their control.

The army and accompanying security forces aim to push the southern front up to Mosul to join troops and special forces that broke into the city’s east this week, taking six districts and carving out a foothold in the militants’ Iraq bastion.

Recapturing Mosul would effectively crush the Iraqi half of a self-proclaimed caliphate declared by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. His Islamist group also controls large parts of east Syria.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, speaking on a visit to the eastern battle front, said he brought “a message to the residents inside Mosul who are hostages in the hands of DAESH (Islamic State) — we will liberate you soon”.

Abadi said progress in the nearly three-week-old campaign, and the advance into Mosul itself, had been faster than expected. But in the face of fierce resistance, which has included suicide car bombings, sniper fire and roadside bombs, he suggested that progress may be intermittent.

“Our heroic forces will not retreat and will not be broken. Maybe in the face of terrorist acts, criminal acts, there will be some delay,” he said.

So far the area which the army says it controls in east Mosul remains only a small part of the city which was home to 2 million people before Islamic State took over in 2014. More than 1 million remain in the city — by far the largest under Islamic State control in either Iraq or Syria.

A Reuters correspondent in the village of Ali Rash, about 7 kms (4 miles) southeast of Mosul, saw smoke rising from eastern districts of the city on Saturday, while air strikes, artillery and gunfire could be heard.

The United Nations has warned of a possible exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mosul. So far only 31,000 have been displaced, of which more than 3,000 have already returned to their homes, said William Lacy Swing, head of the International Organization for Migration.

“The numbers are not as large so far as had been expected. We’d heard figures all the way up to 500,000 or 700,000,” he told Reuters.

“We’re trying to prepare accordingly, but it’s very difficult to do contingency planning with any level of accuracy because we don’t know what they’re going to find when they get inside”.

In Hammam al-Alil, the jihadists had taken hundreds of people as human shields, although Jabouri said it was not clear how many people were left in the town. Before Islamic State swept in more than two years ago, Hammam al-Alil and outlying villages had a population of 65,000.

As well as forcing residents to remain as they came under attack in Hammam al-Alil, Islamic State fighters retreating north in the last two weeks have forced thousands to march with them as cover from air strikes, villagers have told Reuters.

The United Nations said the militants transported 1,600 abducted civilians from Hammam al-Alil to the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, on Tuesday and took another 150 families from the town to Mosul the next day.

They told residents to hand over children, especially boys aged over nine, in an apparent recruitment drive for child soldiers, UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.

Jabouri said a man he described as a senior Islamic State figure, Ammar Salih Ahmed Abu Bakr, was killed by federal police — who are fighting with the army in Hammam al-Alil — as he tried to escape by car.

Many of the remaining militants were non-Iraqis, he said. “There are at least 70 DAESH fighters in the town. The majority are foreign fighters, so they don’t know where to go. They are just moving from place to place.”

Bombs

Meanwhile, two roadside bombs struck a convoy carrying Iraqi families fleeing an Islamic State-controlled town in the north of the country late on Friday, killing 18 people, a police officer said.

The bombs targeted a truck carrying people from Hawija, about 120 kms (75 miles) south of Islamic State’s stronghold in Mosul, as they were being taken to the town of Al Alam, next to the Tigris river.

Seventeen of the dead were from the displaced families, regional police Colonel Nemaa al-Jabouri told Reuters. One policeman in an accompanying patrol car was also killed.

Pictures published on social media by a group linked to Iraq’s defence ministry showed several blackened corpses next to the twisted metal remains of the truck.

In other news, Ireland’s foreign ministry is investigating reports that an Irish citizen died in a suicide attack near the Iraqi city of Mosul, a spokesman said on Saturday.

The Islamic State’s (IS) al-Jazeerah Province in northern Iraq on Friday said Abu Usama al-Irelandi detonated an explosive-laden vehicle, killing and wounding dozens, the SITE Intelligence Group, a US company that monitors Islamist websites, reported.

Abu Usama is a pseudonym used by Irish Islamic State sympathiser Terence Kelly. Pictures posted by Islamic State sympathisers on Twitter showed a man resembling Kelly posing with a machine gun in front of an armoured car.

“The martyrdom-seeking brother Abu Usama al-Irelandi — may Allah accept him — set off with and detonated his explosives-laden vehicle on another gathering of apostates, in Aghazil al-Kabir village, south of Tal Afar, killing and wounding dozens of them, and destroying several of their vehicles,” SITE quoted the IS statement as saying.

Tal Afar is around 80 kms west of Mosul. Reuters could not immediately confirm the report.

Ireland’s Foreign Ministry said it was looking into reports of an Irish citizen’s death, but declined to comment on their identity.

“The department is aware of media reports concerning an Irish citizen in Iraq and is seeking to clarify the situation,” the Irish Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Kelly was brought up Catholic in central Dublin and converted to Islam in his early 30s in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a nurse for three years, converting in prison after he was arrested for illegally brewing alcohol. He also used the pseudonym Khalid Kelly.

Kelly repeatedly praised al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in interviews with the Irish media and was arrested in 2011 for making threats against US President Barack Obama ahead of his visit to Ireland.

He travelled to Pakistan and later told interviewers that he had trained with militants there.

Iraqi troops on Saturday advanced towards Mosul, battling for the last town left between them and the Islamic State stronghold to the north, which was already under assault from special forces inside its eastern districts.

Recapturing Mosul would effectively crush the Iraqi half of a self-proclaimed caliphate declared by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. His Islamist group also controls large parts of east Syria.

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