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Iraqi forces make new push in Mosul, mull closing off Old City as U.S. denies loosening airstrike rules

Reuters

Iraqi forces said they launched new assaults in Mosul’s Old City on Monday after more than two weeks of only small advances and a high civilian death toll appeared to prompt a change in tactics.

A March 17 explosion that killed between 60 and 240 people, according to conflicting accounts, cast a shadow over the U.S.-backed offensive to drive Islamic State (IS) militants out of Iraq’s second largest city, and the parliament speaker spoke of ceasing operations until civilian casualties could be avoided.

The onslaught to oust Islamic State from its last major Iraq stronghold has since October recaptured the whole east side of Mosul and half of the west, which contains the ancient quarter from where IS proclaimed its caliphate spanning large tracts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The civilian death toll has increased in the more densely populated west of Mosul as the militants have used homes for cover, drawing airstrikes that have killed residents.

Iraqi forces have discussed new tactics, which a U.S. military official said might include opening a second front and trying to isolate the Old City.

“Federal police and Rapid Response units started to advance in the southwestern part of the Old City” toward the al-Nuri mosque area, the police said in a statement on Monday.

Iraq’s federal police chief, Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat, said new advances, supported by air power, were being aided by “precise targeting of selected positions” provided by intelligence.

“Our advance aim is to protect civilian lives, infrastructure and private properties,” he was quoted by state TV as saying.

Another federal police officer said the attacks were “the start of the operations to seal off the Old City and prevent Daesh (IS) from receiving reinforcements and fleeing.

The objective, he said, was to “tighten the noose” around IS.

Reuters reporters on the ground saw helicopters carrying out strikes.

Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, which is fighting in districts to the west of the Old City, made some advances last week. If they push farther north, this would help encircle the Old City.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Richardson, a commander in the U.S.-led coalition, told Reuters on Friday that Iraqi forces were considering isolating the Old City rather than fighting through it while opening up a second front.

The change in tactics came amid uproar over the March 17 incident, in which local officials say a U.S. coalition airstrike demolished buildings killing scores of people, with some citing a death toll of more than 200.

The coalition said it had carried out strikes in that area on the day, and that it is investigating.

Iraq’s military said 61 bodies had been recovered from a building Islamic State had booby-trapped, but that there was no sign the structure had been struck by a coalition airstrike.

Iraqi parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri suggested on Monday that operations should be suspended if more civilian casualties occurred, until the issue could be addressed.

“Should civilian casualties continue, the trend will be to cease operations until necessary plans can be found that ensure civilian safety,” he was cited by Al Arabiya news as saying.

The Pentagon, facing allegations that a coalition airstrike may have killed scores of civilians in Mosul, on Monday said it was not loosening its rules of engagement in the fight against Islamic State but that resources to investigate claims were limited.

Eyewitnesses from Mosul and Iraqi officials have said last week’s strike on Islamic State targets may have collapsed homes where rescue officials say as many as 200 people were buried in the rubble.

The U.S. military does not intend to change the way it carries out strikes, even as the fighting in Mosul enters more densely populated areas, Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Monday.

“Gen. Votel is not looking into changing the way we operate other than to say our processes are good and we want to make sure we live by those processes,” Thomas said.

Gen. Joseph Votel heads Central Command.

“There (are) only so many people dedicated to this who really have the expertise to get us where we need to be,” Thomas added.

The Mosul strike, if confirmed, would be one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians in recent memory in any major conflict involving the U.S. military, which prides itself on efforts to limit civilian fallout.

Rescue workers are still searching the site of the March 17 explosion in western Mosul, where one health official said 160 bodies had been recovered. Iraq’s military says 61 bodies have been pulled out so far.

The civilian death toll has increased in the more densely populated west of Mosul as militants have used homes for cover, drawing airstrikes that have killed residents.

Iraqi forces have discussed new tactics, which a U.S. military official said might include opening a second front and trying to isolate the Old City.

Earlier on Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared to back the way the United States carries out strikes.

“There is no military force in the world that has proven more sensitive to civilian casualties,” Mattis said before a meeting with his counterpart from Qatar.

“We go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people. The same cannot be said for our adversaries …,” he said.

The U.S-led coalition fighting Islamic State has said that investigating the allegations in Mosul is a priority and it is assessing the credibility of conflicting reports.

The military has also opened an investigation into a strike in northern Syria this month and is probing allegations that another air strike hit a school near Raqqa.

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