Iraqi forces press west Mosul advance, near airport, get tips on Islamic State fighters in hiding

AP, Reuters

Iraqi forces advanced Monday into the southern outskirts of Mosul on the second day of a push to drive Islamic State militants from the city’s western half, as the visiting U.S. defense secretary met with officials to discuss the fight against the extremists.

With aerial support from the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi police and army troops launched the offensive Sunday, part of a 100-day-old campaign that has already driven the militants from the eastern half of the city.

Iraqi helicopters fired rockets at the village of Abu Saif early Monday, targeting a hill that overlooks the city’s airport. By noon, the forces entered the village and gained control over much of the strategic hill as fighting was still raging.

Separately, militarized police in armored vehicles were moving toward the sprawling Ghazlani military base on the southwestern outskirts of the city.

A U.S.-led coalition has been providing close air support throughout the campaign to retake Iraq’s second-largest city. U.S. special operations forces are embedded with some Iraqi units and thousands of U.S. troops are in Iraq providing logistical and other support.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Jim Mattis was holding discussions with U.S. and Iraqi officials, a week before he is expected to present a new strategy to President Donald Trump for defeating the Islamic State group.

“We’re going to make certain that we’ve got good situational awareness of what we face as we work together and fight alongside each other,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him.

Trump has repeatedly vowed to eliminate the extremist group but has provided few details about how his approach might differ from that of the Obama administration, which had partnered with Syrian rebel and Iraqi forces to drive IS out of several towns and cities.

The battle for western Mosul, the extremist group’s last major urban bastion in Iraq, is expected to be the most daunting yet.

The streets are older and narrower in that sector of the city, which stretches west from the Tigris River, forcing Iraqi soldiers to leave the relative safety of their armored vehicles. The presence of up to 750,000 civilians also poses a challenge.

Two suicide car bombers struck army and paramilitary forces west of Mosul on Monday, killing and wounding a number of troops, two army officers said, without specifying the number of casualties. A third suicide car bomber was blown up before reaching the troops, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

IS claimed responsibility for two attacks in an online statement, saying the attackers were British and Iraqi.

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces battling Islamic State fighters have also fought their way close to Mosul’s airport on the second day of a ground offensive on the jihadis’ remaining stronghold in the western side of the city, military statements said on Monday.

Federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response are leading the charge toward the airport on the southern outskirts of Mosul and plan to turn it into a close support base for the push into western Mosul, commanders have said.

They dislodged Islamic State fighters from the hilltop village of Albu Saif, which overlooks the airport, reaching its “vicinity,” an Iraqi military statement said.

The militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 750,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of the campaign that ended last month, after 100 days of fighting.

“They are striking and engaging our forces and pulling back towards Mosul,” Maj. Mortada Ali Abd of the Rapid Response units told a Reuters correspondent south of Mosul. “God willing Albu Saif will be fully liberated today.”

Elite Counter-Terrorism Service units headed to frontlines around the western side of Mosul, a city divided in two by the Tigris River.

Helicopters were seen strafing the Albu Saif hill during the day to clear it of snipers, while machinegun fire and rocket propelled grenades could be heard. The advancing forces also disabled a car bomb, used by militants to obstruct attacking forces.

The Iraqi forces have been advancing so far in sparsely populated areas and there were no families seen escaping. The fighting will get tougher as they get nearer to the city itself and the risk greater for civilians.

Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets are closed, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters on Saturday.

Commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east of the city, which Iraqi forces took control of last month after three months of fighting. Tanks and armored vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.

The militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, disappear after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to residents.

Western Mosul contains the old city center, with its ancient souks, government administrative buildings, and the mosque from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The city is the largest urban center captured by Islamic State in both countries.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, told a news conference in Baghdad on Monday he had been putting U.S. military advisers closer to front lines in Mosul.

“We adjusted our posture during the east Mosul fight and we embedded advisers a bit further down into the formation,” he said, speaking during an unannounced visit of Defense Secretary Mattis to Baghdad.

Townsend has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both of Islamic State’s major strongholds — Mosul and the city of Raqqa in Syria — within the next six months.

Islamic State was thought to have up to 6,000 fighters in Mosul when the government’s offensive started in mid-October. Of those, more than 1,000 have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.

The remainder now face a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shiite paramilitary groups.

The westward road that links the city to Syria was cut in November by the Sh’ite paramilitary known as Popular Mobilization forces. The militants are in charge of the road that links Mosul to Tal Afar, a town they control 60 km (40 miles) to the west.

Coalition aircraft and artillery have continued to bombard targets in the west during the break that followed the taking of eastern Mosul.

The United States, which has deployed more than 5,000 troops in the fighting, leads an international coalition providing air and ground support to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

Mattis told reporters before arriving in Baghdad the U.S. military was not in Iraq to seize the country’s oil, distancing himself from remarks by President Donald Trump.

A U.S. serviceman died on Monday in a noncombat related incident outside the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, the U.S.-led coalition said, giving no further details.

Islamic State imposed a radical version of Islam in Mosul, banning cigarettes, televisions and radios, and forcing men to grow beards and women to cover from head to toe. Citizens who failed to comply risked death.

Capturing Mosul would effectively end the Sunni group’s ambitions for territorial rule in Iraq. The militants are expected to continue to wage an insurgency, however, carrying out suicide bombings and inspiring lone-wolf actions abroad.

About 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the start of the offensive in October, U.N. officials say. Medical and humanitarian agencies estimate the total number of dead and wounded — both civilian and military — at several thousand.

“This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay — or execution and snipers if they try to run,” Save the Children said, adding children make up about half the population trapped in the city.

The involvement of many local and foreign players with diverging interests in the war heightens the risk that they could clash between themselves after Islamic State is defeated.

Influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is openly hostile to Washington’s policies in the Middle East, on Monday said U.S. troops should leave as soon as Mosul is captured.

Mattis declined to address Sadr’s remarks directly, describing them as an internal political matter, but he said he was reassured after his talks in Baghdad that Iraq’s leaders recognised the value of its relationship with the United States.

“I imagine we’ll be in this fight for a while and we’ll stand by each other,” he said.

To others, he was simply a rubbish collector employed by Islamic State to clean the streets of Mosul, but secretly he was informing on the militants.

For more than two years, the 24-year-old risked his life to pass information about the militants’ positions to Iraqi forces who finally drove them out of the city’s eastern half in January.

“Nobody knew me,” said the man, who is now helping Iraqi security security services track down sleeper cells. “I know them (the militants) all personally.”

Many of the militants were killed, detained or fled during three months of urban combat, but some shaved off their beards and melted back into the civilian population, hoping to slip through the net.

As Iraqi forces attack Islamic State fighters in the west of the city, security agencies in the east are waging a different kind of campaign that will determine whether Mosul’s future is more stable or has the conditions for a new insurgency.

Success will depend largely on cooperation between the security services and residents, who are best placed to identify the militants hidden in their midst.

Before Islamic State overran Mosul in the summer of 2014, many residents there chafed against the security services, which they regarded as corrupt and heavy-handed.

“We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past,” said the general in charge of the vetting process, who asked to remain unnamed. “There were mistakes on both sides. People didn’t cooperate with the security apparatus.”

The National Security Service (NSS) is now going from district to district, searching homes and checking residents on a database containing the names of thousands of people wanted across Iraq.

Since beginning the process in February, more than half the eastern side of the city has been checked and more than 240 suspects caught, an NSS officer said.

Residents, however, complain that the process is haphazard and on Sunday two suicide bombers blew themselves up in eastern Mosul as Iraqi forces launched an offensive on the west, which is still controlled by Islamic State.

Last week, the army sealed off another district — Karama — and directed all men of military age to an elementary school, where they were processed after being patted down one by one to ensure there were no weapons or explosives concealed beneath their clothing.

But it was the informant who led intelligence officers to most of the suspects — three by midday — including a member of his extended family.

He said fellow residents were reluctant to give up the militants in hiding. “Some of them are scared,” he said.

The suspects he identified were bundled into the school, where timetables pinned to the notice boards are dated 2014 — as though time had stopped when Islamic State overran the city.

The militants’ presence can still be seen in the colorful murals decorating the walls: in keeping with a ban on depicting living creatures, the face of a butterfly and a painting of SpongeBob SquarePants have been sprayed over in black.

An intelligence officer led one of the suspects down a corridor into a classroom and sat him down on a desk after emptying his pockets, which contained a Koran.

The young man denied swearing allegiance to Islamic State and said he had been arrested by the militants on suspicion of being an informant for Iraqi security forces himself.

“I will tell you whatever you want,” he said, listing names of people he said had joined the group. “If I had done something wrong, would I show my face around here?”

The intelligence officer was unconvinced, however, citing witness accounts of him wearing Islamic State uniform.

“We have sources and they have sources,” said the officer. “They (the three suspects) are sleeper cells”.

The man eventually divulged that his brother was an Islamic State member, but maintained his own innocence, urging the officer to kill him then and there if he could prove his guilt.