KOKJALI/BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov 3, (RTRS): Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers on Thursday there could be no retreat in a “total war” against the forces arrayed against them, as advancing soldiers battled the militants inside their northern Iraqi stronghold.
Iraqi regular troops and special forces, Shi’ite militias, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and other groups backed by US-led air strikes launched a campaign two weeks ago to retake Mosul.
Winning back the city would mark the defeat of the Iraqi half of a crossborder caliphate which Baghdadi declared from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque two years ago. Islamic State also holds large parts of neighbouring Syria.
Shortly after Baghdadi’s speech was released at around 2 am, residents said heavy explosions shook eastern Mosul. One said the militants fired dozens of rockets towards the Intisar, Quds and Samah districts where soldiers have been closing in.
“We heard the sounds of rockets firing one after the other and saw them flashing through the air. The house was shaking and we were terrified, not knowing what was taking place.”
Another witness from the Hadba neighbourhood of north Mosul said that Islamic State vehicles patrolled the area and blasted out Baghdadi’s speech, urging fighters to hold their positions.
Outside the city’s eastern limits, hundreds of civilians streamed away from the conflict, packed into cars, pickups and trucks, waving white flags and hooting horns. Cows and sheep also filled the road from Kokjali, on the eastern edge of Mosul.
Many were from Kokjali itself, which was cleared of Islamic State fighters by Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service troops earlier this week.
Fleeing residents said there had been heavy mortar fire launched by retreating Islamic State fighters.
By mid-morning, a Reuters correspondent in Kokjali saw smoke rising from inside Mosul but there were no sounds of fighting.
A colonel in the army’s Ninth Armoured Division said troops had managed to break through the southeastern perimeter of Mosul on Thursday, towards the Mithaq and Intisar neighbourhoods.
Four soldiers were killed when two armoured personnel carriers were hit by rocket and mortar fire, he said. “They managed to enter the edge of the neighbourhoods, they still haven’t ventured inside due to the heavy resistance encountered,” he said.
The exact location of Baghdadi, an Iraqi whose real name is Ibrahim al-Samarrai, is not clear. Reports have said he may be in Mosul itself, or in Islamic State-held land to the west of the city, close to the border with Syria.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said intelligence suggested that Baghdadi had “vacated the scene”, but he did not say where the Islamic State leader might be.
Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, much more than any of the other cities captured by Islamic State two years ago in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been advancing on Mosul for two weeks from the north, from the eastern Nineveh plains and up the Tigris river from the south.
The Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) forces of mainly Shi’ite militias joined the campaign on Saturday, launching an offensive to cut off any supply or escape to the west.
The leader of the Badr Organisation, the largest of the Popular Mobilisation militias, said his forces would cut off the main western supply route on Thursday, leaving Islamic State surrounded.
Senior Kurdish politician Hoshiyar Zebari said that Islamic State blew up parts of a bridge over the Tigris linking the two sides of Mosul, to try to prevent fighters abandoning the eastern districts.
“It’s the most important bridge for them because it leads to their headquarters and residential areas (on the western side),” he told Reuters. Residents said there had been two explosion at the bridge, stopping traffic in both directions.
Islamic State has been on the retreat since last year in both Iraq and Syria, in the face of a myriad of different forces seeking to crush the hardline group.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the conflict with Islamic State had caused colossal damage to the country, already struggling to cope with low oil prices. He said infrastructure losses alone amounted to $35 billion.
Meanwhile, aid agencies said on Wednesday families who have fled Mosul and surrounding towns were starting to reach displacement camps away from the fighting, as Iraqi forces press on with an offensive to retake Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
The battle that started on Oct. 17 with air and ground support from a US-led coalition is shaping up as the largest in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003.
On Tuesday Iraqi forces battled Islamic State fighters on the eastern edge of Mosul as the campaign entered a new phase of urban warfare.
The United Nations has said the Mosul offensive could trigger a humanitarian crisis and a possible refugee exodus if the civilians inside in Mosul seek to escape, with up to one million people fleeing in a worst-case scenario.
“People are starting to arrive now from the small towns around Mosul,” Joe Cropp of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We’ve been aware that this has been coming up and the preparations have been going on for two months,” he said in a phone interview from northern Iraq.
IFRC said many people were arriving with only the clothes they were wearing and those who reached Khazer camp, east of Mosul, said they had to walk through the night.
“We were so worried the children would cry out during the night and we would be discovered,” IFRC quoted one of the mothers as saying.
Thousands more people are expected to arrive in the coming days and weeks as fighting around Mosul intensifies, IFRC said. Throughout the country, some 10 million Iraqis are in need of aid.
“Local communities across the country are sharing the responsibility, taking in millions of displaced people. But even with the greatest will in the world they cannot accommodate a million more,” Gyula Kadar, IFRC operations manager, said in a statement.
The International Organisation for Migration said nearly 21,000 people have been displaced since the start of the campaign, excluding thousands of villagers taken into Mosul by retreating jihadists who used them as human shields.
The UN said in October a total of six camps had been built that can accommodate 50,000 people. Efforts were underway to construct 11 more.
Claire Mason, humanitarian policy and advocacy adviser at Save the Children said for security reasons the charity was unable to get too close to Mosul and was readying mobile child protection teams to assist people scattered outside the city.
Betsy Baldwin, Iraq response director from the charity Tearfund, said several hundred people arrived the previous night in one of the camps where the charity was helping.
Baldwin said her organisation had been on standby since summer, preparing tents, stoves and winter clothes which it was planning to distribute this week.
“We are just hoping that we can safely access people in need, that the civilians can move safely out of the conflict zones,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Iraq.
International Rescue Committee said in a statement on Wednesday it had heard of people inside Mosul buying cloth to use as white flags when the army arrives.
When Islamic State insurgents fired mortar bombs at Iranian Kurdish women fighters holding a desert position in northern Iraq, the women first hit back by singing through loudspeakers.
Then the women opened fire with machineguns.
“We wanted to make them angry. To tell DAESH that we are not afraid,” said Mani Nasrallahpour, 21, one of about 200 female Peshmerga fighters who left behind their life in Iran to take on the hardline Sunni militants.
A commander said Islamic State — known to its enemies by the Arabic acronym DAESH — deliberately targeted the female unit with 20 mortars when the singing began.
Islamic State prohibits singing and music. It has also imposed tight restrictions on women and took hundreds of them as sex slaves since sweeping through northern Iraq in 2014 and declaring a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish women are part of a larger armed unit of some 600 fighters aligned with the Kurdistan Freedom Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PAK.
This group has joined an array of Iraqi and Kurdish forces who are backed by a US-led coalition in an offensive designed to push Islamic State out of their stronghold of Mosul.
It also has a far more ambitious goal of creating an independent Kurdish nation that would stretch across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria — a concept those nations reject.
“We fight to protect our soil, whether it is the Kurdistan of Iran or Iraq. It does not matter whether it is DAESH or another group that has occupied our soil,” said Nasrallahpour, clutching an AK-47 assault rifle.
Their presence is a reminder of the complexities of the battlefield in northern Iraq, where the women recently joined Iraqi male Kurdish fighters in driving Islamic State out of the village of Fadiliya.
Avin Vaysi ran into that fight toting a heavy machinegun and battling Islamic State street by street.
“They are afraid of women,” she said. “It is true that DAESH is dangerous but we are not afraid of them.”
So far in the offensive, one woman fighter from the group has been killed.
Like the other Peshmerga, Vaysi was enraged by news reports of the militants abusing women. She decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I saw on television that DAESH is torturing women and it made my blood boil,” said Vaysi, 32, who has a Kurdish flag painted on her cheek. “I decided to go and fight them.”
The presence of the PAK in northern Iraq is controversial. Iran has pressured the Kurdistan Regional Government to expel the group.
Since the start of 2016, the PAK has clashed with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Iran at least six times, said Hussein Yazdanpanah, military commander of the group.
Attempts to reach a Revolutionary Guard media office for comment were unsuccessful.
On Thursday afternoon, women fighters were lined up on a dirt berm, their weapons pointed at the frontline with Islamic State about 700 metres away.
A woman walked by with a sniper rifled strapped to her shoulder. Nearby were a row of captured homemade Islamic State rockets fitted with propane tanks.
Knowing the atrocities Islamic State has carried out against women, Nasrallahpour said the female fighters had made a pact never to allow themselves to be taken captive.
“We always have a bullet ready to use on ourselves in case we are about to be taken prisoner,” she said, rolling a Kalashnikov round between her thumb and forefinger.
She and others hope they can get their hands on Islamic State militants.
“We will tear them apart. When they have killed our babies in the womb why should we show them mercy,” said Nasrallapour.
Fighters say they are treated equally by male comrades.
“We are 100 percent equals. We are proud of the women fighters,” said Hajir Bahmani, 27, a male commander.
Female fighters go through six weeks of training that includes target practice and learning how to be a sniper.
“Along with defending our Kurdish land we are also fighting for women’s rights. Like a man, I can fight in the mountains and the desert,” said Nasrallahpour.
Breaking stereotypes like keeping women in the kitchen is something the fighters take pride in.
“Here the men cook for us,” said Nasrallahpour.