Iraqi forces see off Islamic State attack, seize road out of Mosul

Civilians remain trapped in Iraq’s second largest city as jihadists keep fighting

Civilians flee Mosul as Iraqi forces advance inside the city during fighting against Islamic State on Wednesday.  Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Civilians flee Mosul as Iraqi forces advance inside the city during fighting against Islamic State on Wednesday. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

 

Iraqi forces saw off an overnight Islamic State counter-attack near Mosul’s main government buildings and took full control on Wednesday of the last major road leading west to the militant-held town of Tal Afar, the military said.

Troops also captured the Badush prison, northwest of Mosul near the road, where Islamic State (also known as Isis) reportedly executed hundreds of inmates in 2014, another military statement reported by state TV said.

Inside Mosul, troops battled the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim fighters, who hid among the remaining civilian population and deployed snipers and suicide car bombs to defend their last major Iraq stronghold.

The US-backed campaign to crush the militants saw Iraqi forces recapture the eastern side of the city in January. They launched their assault on the western half last month.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first declared the group’s self-styled caliphate, which has spanned areas of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s old city in June 2014.

US and Iraqi officials al-Baghdadi has left commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battle of Mosul.

They believe he is now hiding out in the desert, focusing mainly on his own survival.

Fighting is expected to get tougher in the city as Iraqi troops push further into the more densely populated areas in the western half of the city, including Mosul’s old city.

Clearing the area

Militants used car bombs in their nighttime counter-attack around the Nineveh governorate building, Maj-Gen Ali Kadhem al-Lami of the Federal Police’s Fifth Division told a Reuters correspondent near the site. “Today we’re clearing the area which was liberated,” he said.

Military officials had said that an elite interior ministry division recaptured the provincial government headquarters on Tuesday. They also took the central bank branch and a museum, where militants had filmed themselves destroying priceless statues in 2015.

“The museum is completely empty of all artifacts. They were stolen, possibly smuggled,” Maj-Gen al-Lami said. Reuters could not get access to the museum to verify his comments.

Maj-Gen al-Lami said most of the fighters that had fought around the governorate building were local, but some were foreigners.

The few families remaining in the nearby Dawasa district said militants had set some of their homes on fire as security forces advanced, and that the militants had fought among themselves.

Taken full control

Later on Wednesday, the Iraqi military said the army and Shia paramilitary forces had taken full control of the last major road leading west out to Tal Afar, state TV reported.

The 9th Armoured Division and two Shia fighting groups had “isolated the right bank” – the western side of Mosul – from Tal Afar, it said. The road links Mosul to Tal Afar, another Islamic State stronghold 60km (40 miles) to the west, and then to the Syrian border.

Shia militias taking part in the Mosul campaign began to close in on Tal Afar late last year. They linked up then with Kurdish fighters to encircle the jihadists.

A 100,000-strong force of Iraqi military units, Shia forces and Kurdish fighters, backed by the US-led coalition, have fought in the Mosul campaign since October.

Losing Mosul would deal a fatal blow to Islamic State’s hold over territory in Iraqi. The jihadists have lost most of the cities they captured in northern and western Iraq in 2014 and 2015. In Syria, Islamic State still holds Raqqa city as its stronghold, as well as most of Deir al-Zor province. But it is losing ground to an array of separate enemies. It has carried out bombings in Iraqi and Syrian cities as its caliphate has shrunk.

Targets in Syria

The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has said Iraq would continue hitting Islamic State targets in Syria and in neighbouring countries if they give their approval.

Mr al-Abadi announced the first Iraqi air strike on Syrian territory on February 24th, targeting Islamic State positions in retaliation for bomb attacks in Baghdad.

“I respect the sovereignty of states, and I have secured the approval of Syria to strike positions” on its territory, the prime minister told a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya on Wednesday.

“I will not hesitate to strike the positions of the terrorists in the neighbouring countries,” he said. “We will keep on fighting them.”