Iraqi advance pauses to clear houses, roads at Mosul’s edge

Curfew imposed on the Gogjali neighbourhood while gains there were being consolidated.

Bartella, Iraq: Iraqi special forces paused their advance into the Daesh stronghold of Mosul on Wednesday, as poor weather hampered visibility and troops attempted to clear a recaptured neighbourhood of any remaining militants, military officials said.

Special forces could be seen going house to house in the Gogjali neighbourhood of the country’s second-largest city, while sappers searched the road for explosives and booby traps left behind by the militants as they were driven out of the eastern district a day earlier.

Gen. Abdul Ghani Al Asadi, the top counter-terrorism forces commander, told reporters special forces had imposed a curfew in the neighbourhood while gains there were being consolidated.

“We fear Daesh militants could attack our forces or the town with mortars,” he said.

“So for the safety of the families we ask them to stay inside their houses,” he said in Bartella, some 15 kilometres (9 miles) behind the front lines.

Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil said that no advances were planned while high humidity and clouds obscured the view of aircraft and drones — a key component to the operations provided by a US-led air campaign.

The guns were largely silent in Gogjali, which is inside Mosul’s city limits but just outside more urban districts, although sporadic rifle cracks could be heard as well as some army artillery fire on Daesh positions. Fadhil said special forces had detained three suspected Daesh militants in the area.

The pause came a day after Iraqi troops set foot in the city for the first time in more than two years, gearing up for urban warfare expected to take weeks, if not months.

In the next stage, troops will have to navigate streets likely lined with booby traps, fighting house-to-house while trying to avoid killing civilians, more than one million of whom are still in the city.

Mosul is the last major Daesh stronghold in Iraq, and driving the militant group from the city would be a major blow to its ambitions of creating a cross-border “caliphate” stretching into Syria. Daesh announced the project in Mosul in 2014, after it routed the much larger Iraqi military, which had been neglected and demoralised by corruption.

However, concerns over the fate of civilians caught up in the fighting has been growing, after residents reported that Daesh militants were rounding up thousands of people to use as human shields and killing those with suspected links to the security forces.

According to one account given to The Associated Press, the fighters went door-to-door in villages south of Mosul, ordering hundreds of people at gunpoint to march north into the city, where urban fighting is expected to be heaviest and the presence of civilians will slow the army’s advance as it tries to avoid killing innocents.

In the latest international condemnation of Daesh, which has carried out mass killings of perceived opponents in the past and boasted about them in grisly photos and videos circulated online, the United Nations called on authorities to collect evidence of Daesh abuses of civilians for future use by tribunals.

Aid agency The Norwegian Refugee Council warned the lives of more than 1 million civilians trapped inside Mosul “are in grave danger” as Iraqi troops advance into the city.

The group, which works with refugees and internally displaced people, said that around 18,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since the start of the massive military operation to retake Mosul over two weeks ago.

The council’s Iraq chief, Wolfgang Gressmann, said the agency’s aid workers were “bracing … for the worst.”

“The lives of 1.2 million civilians are in grave danger, and the future of all of Iraq is now in the balance,” he said

Adama Dieng, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the prevention of genocide, also expressed concern over “the increasing risk” of sectarian violence or revenge attacks during the Mosul campaign, especially where state-sanctioned Iraqi Shiite militias are approaching Sunni communities.

“Any kind of retaliatory violence against individuals on the basis of their membership of a specific group is unacceptable and will undermine the legitimate calls of these communities for their own protection and for their long-standing grievances to be addressed,” he said in a statement released on Tuesday.

Political rhetoric on the issue is heating up, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently warned that Turkey would be closely monitoring Shiite militias’ behaviour in northern Iraq and seeking to safeguard the rights of ethnic Turkmens there. Erdogan said the Iraqi Shiite militias could prompt a Turkish response if they “terrorise” the Iraqi-Turkmen town of Tal-Afar.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s defence minister said his country was making preparations for “all kinds of possibilities” as the Turkish military began deploying tanks and other vehicles to the border town of Silopi.

In a televised speech later that evening to praise the Mosul operation, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi downplayed an escalation. “We don’t want war with Turkey. We do not want confrontation with Turkey,” he said. But if one happens, “we are ready.”

Image: Reuters

Article: Gulf News