Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) – Iraqi forces worked to clear bombs and flush out any remaining jihadists in retaken areas of west Mosul Wednesday to set the stage for an offensive against the Old City.
Supported by US-led air strikes, the forces have made steady progress in their battle to seize Iraq’s second city from the Islamic State group, announcing the recapture of three more areas on Wednesday.
IS overran large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring a cross-border “caliphate” in his last public appearance at a Mosul mosque in July that year.
A US official Wednesday said Baghdadi was no longer in Mosul, and that the hunt for the enigmatic figure is being led by groups outside the US-led anti-IS coalition, including US special operations forces.
Iraqi forces launched the massive operation to retake Mosul on October 17, first recapturing its eastern side before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west.
The jihadists are under mounting pressure from twin US-backed ground offensives targeting Mosul and their other main stronghold, Raqa in Syria.
They have fought back with suicide car bombs, roadside bombs, snipers and weaponised drones.
Iraqi forces have recaptured a series of neighbourhoods in Mosul as well as the provincial government headquarters and the museum where IS militants infamously filmed themselves destroying priceless artefacts.
The focus on Wednesday was on clearing the newly retaken areas and defusing bombs in booby-trapped houses, said Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi of the elite Rapid Response Division.
– ‘Important step’ –
The battle for the Old City may see some of the toughest fighting in west Mosul.
“The liberation of the city centre is a first and very important step for beginning the liberation of the Old City,” Mohammedawi said, referring to an area near the Old City that Iraqi forces have recaptured in recent days.
“The Old City is a very difficult area” of narrow streets and closely spaced houses, he said.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under jihadist rule in the Old City.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) said Wednesday the elite Counter-Terrorism Service had recaptured the neighbourhoods of Al-Mansur, Al-Shuhada al-Oula and Al-Shuhada al-Thaniya in west Mosul.
It said soldiers and pro-government militiamen had retaken Badush prison northwest of Mosul where IS reportedly killed up to 600 people execution-style and also were said to have held more than 500 kidnapped women from the Yazidi minority.
The JOC did not specify whether anyone was still being held at the prison when it was recaptured.
The fighting in the city’s western districts has forced more than 51,000 people to flee their homes, says the International Organization for Migration.
But 750,000 people are believed to have remained in west Mosul under IS, whose fighters have used civilians as human shields to defend themselves from approaching forces.
“We couldn’t go outside because of the IS fighters,” said Manhal, a 28-year-old resident of Al-Danadan, a district now under Iraqi control.
– Berms and barriers –
“Those who went out were taken hostage. The fighting was very violent. Mortar rounds fell on our roof and inside our yard,” he added.
Federal police said anti-IS forces were now setting up defences in recaptured areas of Mosul as they eyed the next phase.
“Berms and barriers were set up to protect (the) forces and they began search operations in Al-Dawasa and Al-Danadan and Al-Agaidat areas to find (IS) remnants to prepare for the completion of offensive operations,” said Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat.
In neighbouring Syria, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has been advancing on Raqa and on Monday they reached the Euphrates River cutting the main road to the partly IS-held city of Deir Ezzor downstream.
Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies meanwhile have pushed south from the Turkish border and driven IS out of the northern town of Al-Bab.
Russian-backed government troops have swept eastwards from Syria’s second city Aleppo and seized a swathe of countryside from the jihadists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said heavy Russian bombing struck IS positions near the town of Al-Khafsah, where regime forces retook a key water pumping station the day before.
State television said more than 260 explosive devices had been defused at the pumping station as the area was cleared for work to start on restoring water to Aleppo city.
An AFP correspondent saw dozens of trucks and cars full of suitcases and bedding waiting on the road between Al-Khafsah and the town of Manbij.
“The shelling began and we fled — wherever we found somewhere safe, we’d settle there,” said Abu Hammoud, an elderly man who left his home near the pumping station.
“We need help for the children. They’re sleeping in the open air. There’s no food here. Everyone can see us, but no one is doing anything.”