Iraq aims to drive ISIL from west Mosul ‘within a month’
MOSUL // Iraqi forces aim to drive ISIL out of west Mosul within a month despite facing possibly the deadliest phase of the battle in the congested Old City, a top commander said on Thursday.
The announcement by the head of the elite Counter Terrorism Service, which has been leading the offensive against the extremists in Mosul, follows reports that ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has fled the city.
“Despite the tough fighting ... we are moving ahead in persistence to finish the battle for the western side within a month,” said CTS Lt Gen Talib Shaghati.
CTS forces recaptured the Moalimin and Silo districts from ISIL on Thursday, but Iraqi forces are facing increasingly stiff resistance as they advance deeper into west Mosul. The militants are using suicide car bombs and snipers to defend their last major stronghold in Iraq.
The operation to retake the eastern bank of the city, launched in mid-October with support from a US-led coalition, took more than three months. The offensive to recapture west Mosul was launched less than three weeks ago.
The few thousand militants still fighting in west Mosul are overwhelmingly outnumbered by a 100,000-strong array of Iraqi forces, but their ruthless tactics east of the Tigris river late last year enabled them to hold out much longer than the government’s initial optimistic predictions.
The CTS is fighting alongside the Federal Police and the elite interior ministry Rapid Response force, which earlier this week recaptured the provincial government headquarters and the Mosul museum.
A federal police colonel said on Thursday there were skirmishes close to the museum, where the militants filmed themselves destroying priceless statues and sculptures in 2015.
“The front line is just beyond it,” said Lt Col Hammeed Habib of the Rapid Response Force. “There are snipers stationed in tall hotel buildings on a road beyond that line”.
Lt Col Abdulamir Al Mohammedawi, also from Rapid Response Force, said the city centre area was being combed to defuse bombs in “homes and shops and buildings”.
The area is on the edge of the Old City, a warren of closely spaced houses where Iraqi forces will have to advance on foot because the streets are too narrow for armoured vehicles to enter.
“Currently there is no order from the operations command to advance toward the Old City. We will advance when this order is issued,” Lt Col Al Mohammedawi said.
It was from the Old City’s grand Al Nuri Mosque that ISIL leader Al Baghdadi declared his “caliphate” nearly three years go.
US and Iraqi officials say Al Baghdadi has fled the city and is moving about in a remote, mostly desert stretch, trying to evade surveillance.
“He was in Mosul at some point before the offensive. He left before we isolated Mosul and Tal Afar”, a town to the west, a US official said.
“He probably gave broad strategic guidance and has left it to battlefield commanders.”
Al Baghdadi’s last known communication is an audio message in November in which he urged supporters to make a stand in the city rather than “retreating in shame”.
While hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under ISIL rule in west Mosul, those who have managed to escape say the extremists were growing increasingly desperate.
“We were used as human shields,” said Abdulrazzaq Ahmed, a 25-year-old civil servant, who escaped along with hundreds of other civilians to Iraqi police waiting outside the city.
Rayan Mohammed, a frail 18-year-old who said he was once given 60 lashes for missing prayers, said the militants were scrambling in the face of the Iraqi offensive.
“They ran away like chickens,” he said.
The Iraqi army’s ninth division and Shiite paramilitary forces on Wednesday cut the main road between Mosul and ISIL stronghold of Tal Afar to the west, tightening a noose around the city.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Updated: March 9, 2017 04:00 AM