Elite Iraq forces helping to move Mosul offensive faster than planned

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An Iraqi special forces soldier fires an RPG during clashes with Islamic States fighters in Bartella, east of Mosul, Iraq Thursday. | REUTERS
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EAST AND NORTH OF MOSUL, IRAQ/NAWARAN IRAQ/BARTELLA IRAQ – The offensive to seize back Mosul from Islamic State is going faster than planned, Iraq’s prime minister said on Thursday, as Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a new military operation to clear villages on the city’s outskirts.

Howitzer and mortar fire started at dawn, hitting a group of villages held by Islamic State about 10-20 km (6-12 miles) from Mosul, while helicopters flew overhead, according to Reuters reporters at two front-line locations north and east of Mosul.

To the sound of machine gun fire and explosions, dozens of black Humvees of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), mounted with machine guns, headed toward Bartella, an abandoned Christian village just east of Mosul.

Militants were using suicide car-bombs, roadside bombs and snipers to resist the attack, and were pounding surrounding areas with mortars, a CTS commander said.

Hours later, the head of Iraq’s Special Forces, Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati, told reporters at a command centrer near the front line that troops had surrounded Bartella and entered the center of the village. Two soldiers were hurt and none killed, and they had killed at least 15 militants, he said.

“After Bartella is Mosul, God willing.”

A cloud of black smoke wreathed some front-line villages, probably caused by oil fires, a tactic the militants use to escape air surveillance.

Iraqi state TV later quoted a CTS spokesman as saying about 80 insurgents were killed in fighting in Bartella and 11 suicide car-bombs destroyed.

A U.S. service member also died on Thursday from wounds sustained in an improvised explosive device blast in northern Iraq, the U.S.-led military coalition said in a statement.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a U.S. defense official said the incident took place near Mosul. Roughly 5,000 U.S. forces are in Iraq. More than 100 of them are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces involved with the Mosul offensive, advising commanders and helping them ensure coalition air power hits the right targets, officials say.

The fighting around Mosul has also forced 5,640 people to flee their homes in the last three days, mostly in the past 24 hours, the International Organization for Migration said on Thursday.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, addressing anti-Islamic state coalition allies meeting in Paris by a video link, said: “The forces are pushing towards the town more quickly than we thought and more quickly than we had programmed.”

Islamic State denied that government forces had advanced. Under the headline “The crusade on Nineveh gets a lousy start,” the group’s weekly online magazine Al-Nabaa said it repelled all assaults on all fronts, killing dozens in ambushes and suicide attacks and destroying dozens of vehicles including tanks.

The U.S.-led coalition that includes France, Italy, Britain, Canada and other Western nations is providing air and ground support to the forces that are closing in on the city in an operation that began on Monday.

Mosul is the last big stronghold held by Islamic State in Iraq and around five times the size of any other city the group has held. The push to capture it is expected to become the biggest battle fought in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The United Nations says Mosul could require the biggest humanitarian relief operation in the world, with worst-case scenario forecasts of up to a million people being uprooted by the battle.

About 1.5 million residents are still believed to be inside the city, and Islamic State has a history of using civilians as human shields. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said controls were being put in place to check jihadis were not trying to insert themselves among those fleeing Mosul.

On the northern front, Kurdish peshmerga shot down a small drone that had flown over from the Islamic State lines. It was not clear if the drone, 1 to 2 meters wide, was carrying explosives or being used for reconnaissance.

“There have been times when they dropped explosives,” said Halgurd Hasan, one of the Kurdish fighters deployed in a position overlooking the plain north of Mosul.

Ali Awni, a Kurdish officer, kept a handheld radio receiver open on a frequency used by Islamic State. “They are giving targets for their mortars,” he said.

So far, advancing Kurdish troops have moved through villages outside the city, finding abandoned houses rigged with explosives and underground bunkers. In some cases fighters from Islamic State, known by opponents by the Arabic name of Daesh, appear to have fled without putting up a fight.

“We did not face resistance from Daesh. They are retreating to Mosul and to Syria. They gave no resistance,” peshmerga soldier Ahmed Midhat Abdullah told Reuters in the village of Nawaran, north of Mosul, where a Kurdish column of armored vehicles was advancing in the dusty desert terrain.

Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, swept into Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq in 2014 and has used extreme violence to administer a self-proclaimed caliphate there and in parts of neighboring Syria.

“The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL’s movements,” the Kurdish general military command said in a statement announcing the launch of Thursday’s operations.

The area around Mosul is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of Iraq, and Western countries backing the assault are concerned that communities feel safe as the government forces advance, to avoid revenge attacks or ethnic and sectarian bloodletting as fighters are driven out.

Western allies have tried to limit the role of Sh’ite militia fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which human rights groups say have carried out killings and kidnappings of Sunnis in other areas freed from Islamic State.

After the Paris meeting, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari offered reassurance: “In answer to those who criticize the PMF for behaving badly, this is not true. … They are part of the Iraqi forces and will be disbanded afterwards.”

Prime Minister Abadi said the Mosul advance demonstrated that Iraqis from all groups could fight in common cause, noting that it was the first time in 25 years that troops from the Baghdad government had entered territory controlled by the Kurdish region to fight alongside the peshmerga.

“Our war today in Mosul is an Iraqi war conducted by Iraqis for Iraqis and for the defense of Iraq’s territory,” he said. “Full Iraqi unity is shining through and more than ever showing the unity to vanquish terrorism.”

U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to bolster his legacy by seizing back as much territory as he can from Islamic State before he leaves office in January.

Islamic State “will be defeated in Mosul,” Obama said on Tuesday, expecting the fight to be difficult.

Iraqi officials and residents of Mosul say Islamic State is preventing people from leaving the city, in effect using them as shields to complicate air strikes and the ground progress of attacking forces.

Elite Iraqi forces Thursday retook a town on the eastern edge of Mosul while peshmerga opened a new front in the offensive to wrest back the jihadis’ last bastion in Iraq.

France and Iraq were co-chairing the meeting on the future of Mosul, which observers have warned could raise even greater humanitarian and interconfessional challenges than the massive military operation to retake it.

In some areas, the Iraqi advance was met by a trickle of civilians fleeing both the fighting and the jihadis who ruled them for two years, but the feared mass exodus from Mosul had yet to materialize.

The counterterrorism service (CTS), Iraq’s best-trained and most battle-seasoned force, retook full control of Bartalla, a town that lies less than 15 km (9 miles) east of Mosul.

“I announce to the people of Bartalla and Mosul we have complete control over Bartalla,” CTS commander Taleb Sheghati al-Kenani told reporters from the town.

“Its residents, its churches and all of its infrastructure are now under the control of CTS,” he said of the small Christian town that IS seized when it swept across the Nineveh plain in August 2014.

Some 120,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes at the time.

Farther north peshmerga opened a new front with a multiple-pronged assault on the town of Bashiqa.

“The objectives are to clear a number of nearby villages and secure control of strategic areas to further restrict ISIL’s movements,” the peshmerga command said.

At dawn, bulldozers flattened a path for forces in armored vehicles to carve their way down toward Bashiqa.

As tanks and personnel carriers prepared to advance, a shadow glided above them and one peshmerga shouted “drone!”

Fighters opened fire at it with every weapon available, causing an almighty din and lighting up the dim morning sky, until it fell to the ground and the troops resumed their advance.

An AFP reporter in the village of Nawaran near Bashiqa saw the downed drone, a Raven RQ-11B model similar to a booby-trapped one that killed two Kurdish fighters and wounded two French soldiers a week ago.

Iraqi federal forces and the peshmerga have not divulged casualty figures in this offensive.

On Thursday, IS released a short video showing the bodies of what it said were two peshmerga, hung by their feet from a bridge in central Mosul.

To the south, Iraqi forces were making steady gains, working their way up the Tigris Valley and meeting small numbers of fleeing civilians heading the other way.

Dozens of men, women and children who escaped from the village of Mdaraj, south of Mosul, some on foot and others with vehicles, were waiting as police searched their belongings.

“We snuck out,” said a man who gave his name as Abu Hussein.

The huge plumes of black smoke from fires lit by IS to provide cover from airstrikes had helped them slip out unnoticed, he said.

The U.N. fears up to a million people still trapped inside Mosul could be forced to flee by the fighting, sparking a humanitarian emergency.

But Iraqi forces are still some distance from the city limits and no major outflows of civilians have been reported yet.

The U.N.’s refugee agency said so far around 1,900 people had been displaced from the Qayyarah and Hammam al-Alil areas and been given assistance.

Some Mosul residents who fled before the start of the offensive have crossed into Syria and are now sheltered at a camp in Al-Hawl.

A Kurdish official at the camp said 500 people had entered the camp in the past two weeks and 2,000-3,000 Iraqis were waiting at the border.

Bulldozers were busy expanding the camp, which staff there feared could be submerged by as many as 30,000 displaced Iraqis when the Mosul battle intensifies.

French President Francois Hollande meanwhile told the Paris meeting that jihadis were already leaving for Raqqa, their stronghold in Syria.

“We can’t afford mistakes in the pursuit of the terrorists who are already leaving Mosul for Raqqa,” Hollande said. “We cannot allow those who were in Mosul to evaporate.”

Mosul, Iraq’s second city, was seized by IS in June 2014.

IS rule has seen some of the worst war crimes in recent history and the task of reconciling all the components of the area’s complex religious and ethnic mosaic is daunting.

“Given the sheer size of Mosul — and its experience of savage rule at the hands of the Islamic State — revenge killing will likely be an issue in the days and months ahead,” according to the Soufan consultancy.

“A massive effort will be required to begin to heal what is a truly fractured city and society,” it said.

IS militants unleashed nine suicide car and truck bombs against the advancing troops, eight of which were destroyed before reaching their targets, while the ninth struck an armored Humvee, Lt. Col Muntadhar al-Shimmari told The Associated Press.

He did not give a casualty figure, but another officer said five soldiers were wounded. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.

The special forces entered the town of Bartella, a traditionally Christian village that fell to IS in 2014, around midday. The fighting thus far has been concentrated in a cluster of towns and villages outside Mosul that are mostly uninhabited and littered with roadside bombs planted by the militants, which has slowed the Iraqi advance.

Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said the special forces retook Bartella. But Iraqi forces were facing stiff resistance inside the town shortly before he spoke.

The special forces are expected to lead the way into Mosul, where they will face fierce resistance in an urban landscape where IS militants are preparing for a climactic battle. The offensive is the largest operation launched by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and is expected to take weeks, if not months.

The peshmerga announced a “large-scale operation” to the north and northeast of Mosul on Thursday.

“The operation will be in three fronts,” the peshmerga said in a statement, and follows recent gains by the Kurds to the east of Mosul and Iraqi security forces to the south.

Peshmerga forces stationed on mountains northeast of Mosul descended from their positions and charged toward the front line.

They used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to fill trenches and moved armored vehicles into the breach after about an hour of mortar and gunfire at IS positions below in the village of Barima.

Amer al-Jabbar, a 30-year-old soldier with the Iraqi special forces, said he was happy to be taking part in the assault on Bartella and hoped to avenge two brothers killed while fighting for the security forces.

“I had one brother who became a martyr in 2007 and another who became a martyr in 2014,” he said. “I want to avenge them and I’m ready to die.”

Iraq’s U.S.-trained special forces are seen as far more capable than the mainstream security forces that crumbled as IS advanced in 2014. The special forces, including the vaunted “Golden Division,” have played a central role in liberating several cities and towns over the past year, including Ramadi and Fallujah, in the western Anbar province.

The special forces advanced in some 150 Humvees decked with Iraqi flags and Shiite religious banners. Ali Saad, a 26-year-old soldier, said the Kurdish forces had asked them to take down the religious banners, but they refused.

“They asked if we were militias. We said we’re not militias, we are Iraqi forces, and these are our beliefs,” he said.

Mosul is a Sunni majority town, and many fear the involvement of the Shiite militias in the operation could stoke sectarian tensions. The Shiite militias have said they will not enter the city itself, but will focus on retaking the town of Tel Afar to the west, which had a Shiite majority before it was captured by IS

Elite Iraq forces helping to move Mosul offensive faster than planned