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Wave of car bombs hits Iraqis – Forces close in

Fire and smoke billow following a car bomb explosion as Iraqi forces clash with Islamic State (IS) group fighters in Mosul on March 5, during an offensive to retake the western parts of the city from the jihadists.

BAGHDAD, March 5, (Agencies): Iraqi troops encountered the heaviest clashes yet with Islamic State group fighters Sunday in western Mosul since the start of the new push more than two weeks ago, according to a senior commander. Maj Gen Haider al-Maturi of the Federal Police Commandos Division told The Associated Press that IS militants dispatched at least six suicide car bombs, which were all destroyed before reaching the troops. The militants, he said, are moving from house to house and deploying snipers.

The wave of heavy resistance comes as Iraqi forces launched attacks against IS-held neighborhoods in western Mosul from three points Sunday morning. The Federal Police are closing in on the city’s main government complex in the Dawasa neighborhood and Iraq’s special forces are attempting to push into the Shuhada and Mansour neighborhoods.

IS fighters have “some mortar (teams) and snipers positioned inside homes,” said Iraqi special forces Maj Ali Talib, explaining that US-led coalition airstrikes have helped destroy some of the IS defenses, but clashes are still ongoing. Al-Maturi, of the federal police, said his troops are now some 500 meters away from the government complex.

Also on Sunday, The Hague, Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement the organization was “seriously concerned” about reports of chemical weapons use in Mosul. “The OPCW has asked Iraqi authorities for more information and has offered its assistance to the Iraqi investigation,” the statement said.

The alleged attack occurred last week in eastern Mosul, an area declared fully liberated by Iraqi forces in January. The attack hit a neighborhood along the Tigris River, which roughly divides the city in two. Hospital officials said 10 patients were admitted for exposure and would be discharged in the coming days. The United Nations warned that the alleged use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, would be a war crime and a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

The push on Mosul’s west was launched about two weeks ago after the eastern half of the city was declared “fully liberated” in January. The operation to retake Mosul officially began in October after more than two years of slowly clawing back territory from IS militants. IS overran nearly a third of Iraq — including Mosul the country’s second largest city — in the summer of 2014.

Meanwhile, US-backed Iraqi forces are about to reach the main government complex in Mosul, their next target in the offensive to dislodge Islamic State from the city, a commander said on Sunday. The complex, which houses the Nineveh Provincial Council and the Nineveh Governorate buildings, should be taken Monday, Lt Colonel Abdel Amir al-Mohammadawi told Reuters.

Rapid response units from the interior ministry are “very close” to the complex, said Mohammadawi, a senior media officer with these elite units. Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State group in hours of heavy clashes in west Mosul on Sunday, as the number of people who fled fighting in the area topped 45,000. Iraqi forces have recaptured several areas in west Mosul since launching the push to retake it on Feb 19, but their pace has slowed amid bad weather which muddies streets and makes air support more difficult.

West Mosul is the largest urban population centre still held by the Islamic State group, followed by the city of Raqa in Syria and the town of Tal Afar, which is located between Mosul and the Syrian border. The fall of west Mosul would effectively mark the demise of IS’s crossborder “caliphate,” which its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from a mosque in the city in 2014, but the threat posed by the jihadists would still be far from over. Black smoke billowed over west Mosul on Sunday as Iraqi forces battled IS in a fight marked by explosions and continual automatic weapons fire.

In the course of the fighting, security forces targeted an approaching IS car bomb, detonating it and sending a fireball rising over the area, and also fired on a jihadist drone flying overhead. “Rapid Response forces are moving toward important governmental buildings such as the governorate building and the police directorate,” Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi, a member of the elite interior ministry unit, told AFP. The jihadists are using snipers, mortars and bombs planted in streets and houses, Mohammedawi said. Al-Dawasa, which includes the Nineveh province governor’s headquarters and other government buildings was among several areas assaulted by Iraqi forces on Sunday.

The Joint Operations Command said the Rapid Response forces and federal police were attacking Al-Dindan and Al-Dawasa, while the Counter-Terrorism Service assaulted Al-Sumood and Tal al-Rumnan. Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat later said in a statement that police — presumably along with forces from the Rapid Response Division — had advanced to within “dozens of metres” of the government buildings in Al-Dawasa. The Counter-Terrorism Service and Rapid Response are two special forces units that have spearheaded most of the advances in the Mosul area. The Iraqi army is also taking part in the fight for west Mosul, with the 9th Armoured Division advancing through the desert surrounding the city, aiming to cut if off from Tal Afar, farther west. More than 45,000 people have fl ed west Mosul since the push to retake it began, while over 200,000 are currently displaced as a result of the battle to retake the city, which was launched on Oct 17, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The IOM figures indicate the number of people who came from west Mosul to sites for the displaced from Feb 25, when the arrivals began, through Sunday. More than 17,000 people arrived from west Mosul on Feb 28 alone, while over 13,000 came on March 3, according to the IOM. On Saturday, Iraq’s minister of displacement and migration publicly criticised United Nations-led efforts to aid those displaced by the west Mosul fighting, while the UN said such assistance was the “top priority”. “Unfortunately, there is a clear shortfall in the work of these (UN) organisations,” Jassem Mohammed al- Jaff said in a statement. The UN, which has been providing shelter, food and other assistance to Iraqis who have fl ed Mosul during the nearly five-month-long battle, said it is working as fast as possible to help those displaced.

“The top priority for humanitarians is to make sure that there is sufficient capacity at emergency sites to deal with the number of civilians who are fl eeing western Mosul,” said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes and other support have since regained most of the territory they lost. More than 40,000 people have been displaced in the last week from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where US-backed forces launched a fresh push towards the Islamic State-held old city centre on Sunday and closed in on the main government complex.

The pace of displacement has accelerated in recent days as fighting approaches the most densely populated parts of western Mosul, and aid agencies have expressed concern that camps to accommodate people fl eeing the city are almost full. The International Organization for Migration’s Mosul Displacement Tracking Matrix showed the number of people uprooted since the start of the offensive in October exceeded 206,000 on Sunday, up from 164,000 on Feb 26.

That number may still rise sharply. The United Nations last month warned that more than 400,00 people, more than half the remaining population in western Mosul, could be displaced. Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb 19.

Defeating Islamic State in Mosul would crush the Iraqi wing of the caliphate declared by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014, over parts of Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate from Mosul’s grand Nuri mosque, in the old city centre which is still under his followers’ control. Rapid Response units and Counter Terrorism Service forces launched a fresh push into the city on Sunday after a 48-hour pause due to bad weather that hampered air surveillance, facilitating counter-attacks by the militants.

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