Iraqi forces prepare to retake Tal Afar from Islamic State militants

Displaced Iraqis from Talafar are seen in Salamya camp, east of Mosul, Iraq August 6, 2017. Picture taken August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

By Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Five weeks after securing victory in Mosul, Iraqi forces have moved into positions around the city of Tal Afar, their next objective in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State militants, Iraqi military commanders say.

A longtime stronghold of hardline Sunni insurgents, Tal Afar, 50 miles (80 km) west of Mosul, was cut off from the rest of the Islamic State-held territory in June.

The city is surrounded by Iraqi government troops and Shi’ite volunteers in the south, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the north.

About 2,000 battle-hardened militants remain in the city, according to U.S. and Iraqi military commanders. They are expected to put up a tough fight, even though intelligence from inside the city indicates they have been exhausted by months of combat, aerial bombardments, and by the lack of fresh supplies.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate all but collapsed last month when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul after a brutal nine-month campaign. But parts of Iraq and Syria remain under its control, including Tal Afar, a city with a pre-war population of about 200,000.

Waves of civilians have fled the city and surrounding villages under cover of darkness for weeks now, although several thousand are estimated to remain, threatened with death by the militants who have held a tight grip there since 2014.

Thousands of troops stand ready at the frontline, awaiting orders from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to start the offensive, Iraqi army Major-General Uthman al-Ghanimi said this week.


The main forces deployed around Tal Afar are the Iraqi army, Federal Police and the elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraqi commanders told Reuters.

Units from the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), some of which are trained and armed by Iran, are also likely to take part in the battle, as well as volunteers from Tal Afar fighting alongside government troops, they said.

The involvement of the PMF is likely to worry Turkey, which claims an affinity with the area’s predominantly ethnic Turkmen population.

Tal Afar experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has produced some of Islamic State’s most senior commanders.

Iraqi forces have already begun conducting air strikes aimed at “wearing them down and keeping them busy,” Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said.

The coalition’s targets on Friday included weapons depots and command centers, in preparation for the ground assault.

The war plan provides for the Iraqi forces to gradually close in on the city from three sides — east, west and south — under the cover of air and artillery strikes.

Major General Najm al-Jabouri told Reuters last month he expected an easy fight in Tal Afar. He estimated fewer than 2,000 militants and their families were left there and they were “demoralized and worn down”.

“I don’t expect it will be a fierce battle even though the enemy is surrounded,” al-Jabouri said.

Residents who left Tal Afar last week told Reuters the militants looked exhausted.

“[Fighters] have been using tunnels to move from place to place to avoid air strikes,” said 60-year-old Haj Mahmoud, a retired teacher. “Their faces looked desperate and broken.”

But Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said he “fully expects this to be a difficult fight”.

“Intelligence gathered shows clearly that the remaining fighters are mainly foreign and Arab nationals with their families and that means they will fight until the last breath,” said Colonel Kareem al-Lami from the Iraqi army’s 9th Division.

But Lami said Tal Afar’s open terrain and wide streets will allow tanks and armored vehicles easy passage. Only one part of Tal Afar, Sarai, is comparable to Mosul’s Old City, where Iraqi troops were forced to advance on foot through narrow streets, moving house-to-house in a battle that resulted in the near total destruction of the historic district.

Lieutenant Colonel Salah Abdul Abbas of the 16th Infantry Division, said they were bracing for guerrilla street-fighting fight, based on the lessons learned in West Mosul.


The United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), estimates that about 10,000 to 40,000 people are left in Tal Afar and surrounding villages. Iraqi commanders say the number of people left inside the city itself, including militants and their families, is closer to 5,000.

However, aid groups say they are not expecting a huge civilian exodus as most the city’s former residents have already left.

On Sunday, 2,760 people fleeing Tal Afar and the surrounding area were processed by the IOM before being sent on to displaced persons’ camps.

“We were living in horror and thinking of death at every moment,” Haj Mahmoud, the retired teacher, said. He decided to make a run for it with his wife and four sons and has been living with them at the Hammam al-Alil camp ever since.

Residents spoke of fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid the militants, who shot anyone caught trying to escape.

“We escaped at night, during evening prayers,” said 20-year-old Khalaf. “All the IS fighters were praying at the mosque, so they didn’t catch us. If they had, they would’ve sprayed bullets into our heads”, like they did his neighbors.

Khalaf said he fled five weeks ago with his two children and 40 other people from his village of Kisik. They walked for a full day to reach safety at a Peshmerga checkpoint.

“People in Kisik are completely trapped,” he said. “Those left tell us there’s no water, no food, no bread, no medicines – nothing.” Up until he left, 1kg bag of rice cost roughly $40.

Sultan Abdallah and his family escaped Kisik with Khalaf. They are now all living at the al-Salamiya refugee camp.

“We had spent three months with no food,” said Abdallah. He still has a brother, a cousin and an uncle left in Kisik, but he has not been able to speak to them since he left.

“You were forced to work for the militants to feed your family,” Abdallah said.

Saad al-Bayati fled Tal Afar five days ago with his family, fearing aerial bombardments. He is now living in the Hammam al-Alil camp with his wife and sick baby.

“I heard what happened in Mosul’s Old City, where whole families were killed by air strikes,” al-Bayati said. “I didn’t want to see my family buried under the rubble.”

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles, Writing by Raya Jalabi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamic State still a threat as Mosul residents return to city in ruins

A member of Iraqi federal police patrols in the destroyed Old City of Mosul, Iraq August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Raya Jalabi

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Abu Ghazi stood smoking a cigarette outside what used to be his home in Mosul’s Old City, where only the sound of the footsteps of a few soldiers on patrol and twisted pieces of metal and fabric flapping in the wind disturb the eery silence.

“They should just bulldoze the whole thing and start over,” he said, gazing at the rows of collapsed buildings with their contents strewn across the upturned streets.

“There’s no saving it now, not like this.”

Hundreds of yards away on Wednesday Federal Police shot an Islamic State fighter as he emerged firing his gun from an underground tunnel on Makkawi Street.

Similar stories have been reported by aid workers and residents of West Mosul in the past few days.

“West Mosul is still a military zone as the search operations are ongoing for suspects, mines and explosive devices,” a military spokesman said.

“The area is still not safe for the population to return.”

However, in nearby Dawrat al Hammameel, with machines whirring in his workshop, Raad Abdelaziz said he has encouraged neighbors to return despite the still very real danger weeks after the government declared victory over the jihadists.

Just this week, his nephew, Ali, saw a militant emerge from under a house and try to injure some civilians before he was caught and handed over to the Federal Police.

But Abdelaziz, whose factory was up and running just two weeks after he returned to Mosul with his family, persists: We want people in the neighborhood to come back to their jobs.”

He is already filling orders for water and gas tanks from residents intent on rebuilding. “Life is already coming back gradually,” he said.


Like Abu Ghazi and Raad Abdelaziz, dozens of those displaced by the fighting have returned to West Mosul, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in nine-month battle to rout the militants from their stronghold in Iraq’s second-largest city.

At the northern pontoon, one of two remaining access points between East and West Mosul, hundreds walked towards the western half of the city, carrying suitcases, household goods and livestock. Others drove across the makeshift bridge in overflowing coaches.

Ziad al Chaichi came back to reopen his tea shop in West Mosul a week ago, having fled his nearby home in March.

“Everything’s still a mess – we have nothing. No water, no electricity – we need the essentials,” he said in his shop where dainty porcelain tea pots hung from the walls. He was thankful that some people were buying his tea, including Abdelfattah, a neighbor who sat with a group of men outside.

“We want life to return here,” said Abdelfattah, 60, who came back to a partially collapsed home with his family about three weeks ago. “Not for us – the older generation – but for the children… Until then, we’re just sitting here patiently, drinking tea.”


Even in death, the militants haunt Mosul’s residents.

A handful of their bodies are lying around the Old City, a pungent reminder of the last ten months.

“We wish they would just take them away,” said Najm Abdelrazaq. But unlike with civilian bodies, the police and the military refuse to allow it, he said.

“Why should we dignify them and remove the bodies?” one soldier said, when asked why the bodies were being left to rot in the 47 degree Celsius (116 Fahrenheit) heat. “Let them rot in the streets of Mosul after what they did here.”

Returnees are concerned about the smell and the risk of disease, but they’d rather have the bodies of their neighbors recovered first.

Around the corner from Chaichi’s shop, scrawled across several collapsed houses in blue ink was: “The bodies of families lie here under the rubble.”

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

Iraqi general sees easy victory over exhausted IS fighters in Tal Afar

An Iraqi top army generals, Major General Najm Abdullah al-Jubbouri speaks during an interview with Reuters in Mosul, Iraq July 30, 2017. Picture taken July 30, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

By Isabel Coles

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – A senior Iraqi general predicted a relatively easy victory for his forces in the upcoming battle for the Islamic State haven of Tal Afar as up 2,000 fighters and their families there are “worn out and demoralised”.

Less than one month after declaring victory in the city of Mosul, Iraqi forces are poised to attack Tal Afar, which is around 40 km to the west of Mosul, in what will be the next major battle against the militants.

“I don’t expect it will be a fierce battle even though the enemy is surrounded,” Major-General Najm al-Jabouri told Reuters in an interview.

Jabouri, a key battlefield commander, said the fight would be simple compared to the nine months of gruelling urban combat in Mosul, which took a heavy toll on Iraqi forces.

“The enemy is very worn out,” said Jabouri, who was mayor of Tal Afar when it was overrun by insurgents more than a decade ago. “I know from the intelligence reports that their morale is low,” the general added.

The city, with about 200,000 residents before falling to Islamic State, experienced cycles of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and produced some of Islamic State’s most senior commanders.

It has also become the focus of a wider regional struggle for influence. Turkey, which claims affinity with Tal Afar’s predominantly ethnic Turkmen population, opposes the involvement of Shi’ite paramilitary groups fighting with Iraqi forces, some of which are backed by Iran.

Jabouri estimated there were between 1,500 and 2,000 militants left in Tal Afar. The figure may include some family members who support them.

“It’s a large number, but the terrain is favourable (to Iraqi forces),” Jabouri said. Only one part of the city, Sarai, is comparable to Mosul’s Old City, where Iraqi troops were forced to advance on foot through narrow streets. The rest of Tal Afar can be navigated in tanks and armoured vehicles.


Unlike Mosul, where Islamic State effectively held hundreds of thousands of people hostage to slow the advances of Iraqi forces, Jabouri said few civilians remained in Tal Afar, except those related to the militants.

Iraqi forces expect to face bombs, snipers and booby-traps. Despite being surrounded, there is no sign the militants are running low on ammunition, Jabouri said.

Many local Turkmen members of Islamic State already managed to escape by mingling with displaced civilians and fled to Turkey, where they can blend in anonymously, Jabouri said.

Of the remaining militants, Jabouri believed many were foreigners — from Turkey, former Soviet Republics and Southeast Asia — who became trapped after Iraqi forces severed all routes between Mosul and Tal Afar earlier this year.

The city had already been sealed off by Kurdish forces to the north, and mainly Shi’ite paramilitaries to the south leading to shortages of food and water.

The U.S.-led coalition has conducted air strikes in and around Tel Afar, paving the way for Iraqi forces to storm the city after reorganising and recuperating from Mosul.

Jabouri said all that remained was to receive orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to launch the assault: “perhaps it will be in days, or a week, or two”.

Beyond Tal Afar, Islamic State still controls other pockets of territory in Iraq, including the town of Hawija and the surrounding area.


The upcoming battle for Tal Afar carries echoes of the past.

As the United States reduced its troop presence in northern Iraq after the invasion, Sunni insurgents seized the opportunity to take over most of Tal Afar in 2005.

Jabouri, who was mayor at the time, held out in the 16th-century Ottoman citadel that used to dominate the city from a hilltop in the centre as Iraqi and American troops led by Colonel H.R. McMaster routed the insurgents.

The city stabilised, and McMaster’s approach was held up as a blueprint for successful counter-insurgency strategy, but in years to come Tal Afar lapsed back into communal violence and insurgents took root again.

Jabouri says he met with McMaster, who is now U.S. National Security Adviser, around one month ago and they discussed Tal Afar. “It was different,” said Jabouri, comparing the past battle with the future one.

Islamic State is more formidable an enemy than al Qaeda was, he said, but Iraqi forces have also gained experience over three years of fighting the group.

The U.S. role is less conspicuous this time, and the historic citadel is no longer standing because Islamic State blew it up.

(Reporting by Isabel Coles, editing by Peter Millership)

After Mosul, Islamic State digs in for guerrilla warfare

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division are photographed with an Islamic State flag, claimed after fighting with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

By Michael Georgy

MOSUL (Reuters) – Islamic State militants began reinventing themselves months before U.S.-backed Iraqi forces ended their three-year reign of terror in Mosul, putting aside the dream of a modern-day caliphate and preparing the ground for a different fight.

Intelligence and local officials said that, a few months ago, they noticed a growing stream of commanders and fighters flowing out of the city to the Hamrin mountains in northeast Iraq which offer hideouts and access to four Iraqi provinces.

Some were intercepted but many evaded security forces and began setting up bases for their new operations.

What comes next may be a more complex and daunting challenge for Iraqi security forces once they finish celebrating a hard-won victory in Mosul, the militants’ biggest stronghold.

Intelligence and security officials are bracing for the kind of devastating insurgency al Qaeda waged following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, pushing Iraq into a sectarian civil war which peaked in 2006-2007.

“They are digging in. They have easy access to the capital,” Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official, told Reuters. As part of the U.S.-led coalition, he is at the forefront of efforts to eliminate Islamic State.

“I believe we have tougher days coming.”

Some Iraqi Islamic State fighters have roots dating back to al Qaeda’s campaign of car and suicide bombs that exploded by the dozens each day and succeeded in fueling a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq, a major oil producer and key U.S. ally.

When a U.S.-funded tribal initiative crushed al-Qaeda, the hardcore regrouped in the desert between Iraq and Syria. They reappeared with a new jihadist brand that took the world by surprise: Islamic State.

Shortly after its lighting sweep through Mosul, the group outdid al Qaeda’s brutality, carrying out mass beheadings and executions as it imposed its ultra-hardline ideology.

Unlike al-Qaeda, it seized a third of Iraqi territory, gaining knowledge of land that could come in handy as it hits back at Iraqi security forces.


Former Iraq intelligence officers who served under Saddam Hussein joined forces with Islamic State in an alliance of convenience. These shrewd military strategists from his Baath Party are expected to be the new generation of Islamic State leaders, Talabany and other security officials said.

Instead of trying to create a caliphate, a concept which attracted recruits from disaffected fellow Sunni Muslims, Islamic State leaders will focus on far less predictable guerrilla warfare, Iraqi and Kurdish security officials said.

Iraqi forces have come a long way since they collapsed in the face of the Islamic State advance in 2014, throwing down their weapons and removing their military uniforms in panic.

They fought for nearly nine months to seize Mosul, with steady help from U.S.-led airstrikes that flattened entire neighborhoods.

The key question is whether an army that is far more comfortable with conventional warfare can take on an insurgency with sleeper cells and small units of militants who pop out of deserts and mountains, carry out attacks and melt away.

“They’ll try to hide with the population. Their cells will get smaller – instead of companies and platoons, they’ll go to squads and cells, much smaller elements hiding in the population,” Lieutenant-General Steve Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters.

“Our Iraqi security force partners will have to engage in counter-insurgency style operations at some point and we’re already making efforts now to start shaping their training towards that next ISIS tactic.”

History suggests training may not be enough.

The United States spent $25 billion on the Iraqi military during the American occupation that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and triggered an insurgency that included al Qaeda.

That did not prepare the army for the long-haired Islamic State militants who sped into Mosul in pickup trucks with weapons stolen from retreating Iraqi troops.

Iraqi forces can certainly point to successes in Mosul and the cities of Falluja and Ramadi in Anbar province, once held by Islamic State.

But local officials say the cities remain vulnerable to attacks from the vast desert nearby mastered by militants.

“Security operations will be useless unless security forces control the desert,” said Anbar official Emad Dulaimi, adding that the desert had become a safe haven for Islamic State.

“It is not present as an organization in cities but it carries out attacks by individuals. Car bombs. Suicide bombers. People fear Islamic State will come back. There are attacks every day.”

Tareq Youssef al-Asal, leader of a tribal force, shares those concerns and complains of what he says is a lack of a coordination among numerous local security forces.

“In the end these leaderships have no experience fighting in the desert,” he said.

Some ordinary citizens still do not feel safe despite the Iraqi army’s improved performance.

Anbar resident Ahmed al-Issawy does not plan on re-opening his restaurant anytime soon. He is afraid it will be destroyed the same way it was in clashes between security forces and Islamic State in 2014.

“I am afraid there could be an attack at any second,” he said.

Islamic State has not wasted any time in implementing its new strategy despite a major loss in Mosul.

About 30 militants armed with machine guns and mortars crossed the Tigris river in wooden boats, attacked the village of Imam Gharbi, some 70 km (44 miles) south of Mosul in early July and then pulled out, according to security officials.

“The notion of a caliphate is gone. The dream is gone. They will revert back to their old tactics of hit and run attacks,” said senior Kurdish official and former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari. “The hardcore will keep fighting.”

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

In camps and ruins, Mosul civilians’ ordeal is far from over

A refugee camp is seen in Mosul, Iraq July 17, 2017. Picture taken July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

By Angus MacSwan

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The battle for Mosul is all but over after nine months of devastating urban warfare between government forces and Islamic State militants, but Iraqi civilians are suffering in a humanitarian crisis of monumental scale.

More than one million people fled their homes in Mosul and nearby villages since the fighting started. Most of them are packed into camps in the countryside or have found shelter elsewhere.

Those who ventured back to Mosul found wrecked houses, destroyed schools and hospitals, and water and power shortages, alongside the threat of gunfire and booby-traps.

Whole neighborhoods of Iraq’s second city are reduced to the crumpled ruins of what were once homes and businesses -– much of the destruction due to air strikes and artillery by the U.S.-led coalition. Charred wrecks of cars litter the streets.

“The end of the battle for Mosul isn’t the end of the ordeal for civilians. The humanitarian situation not only remains grave, but could worsen,” the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of many international organizations and governments helping the relief and rehabilitation effort, said in a statement.

Overcoming the crisis is crucial to Iraq’s political future as it struggles to build stability, overcome sectarian rivalry, and emerge from grinding conflict since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

At the Al Salamiya refugee camp on the parched Plain of Ninevah, nearly 2,000 families live in tents. While happy to be safe from the ravages of Islamic State, who subjected Mosul to harsh rule for nearly three years, they are frustrated and worried about their future.


Muhamad Jasim, 44, was a laborer but fled with his wife and children from al-Kasik district six weeks ago in the final phases of the battle to recapture the city from Islamic State.

“Under Daesh (IS) it was very bad, no work, suffering, and they were very angry. We left behind a lot — car, house,” he said. “I was afraid for my kids. I had to leave.”

Sitting cross-legged in his tent, he complained forcefully. “We do not have money to buy things. There is nothing for us but to sit here. We don’t have enough food, we have to spend what money we have on vegetables, ice. The monthly food ration is not enough.” When did he think he might go home? “I have no idea.”

The Salamiya camp, mostly housing people from West Mosul and nearby villages, opened in late May under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Iraqi government.

It seems to be well-organized and well-supplied. There is a school and a clinic. Water supplies had been a problem but now a pipeline has been laid from Salamiya town. Residents are from all walks of life, from farmers to shop-keepers.

As camp manager Ali Saleh of the French agency ACTED walked down the main street, people approached him asking for jobs, help with finding a tent for relatives, or other problems.

“It is not easy. They are frustrated. This is the beginning. We’ll see in a couple of months,” he said.


Stalls and shops have sprung up selling nuts and pastries, fruit and vegetables, and household items. Although they are against the rules, the management is permitting them.

“A lot of people worked for a living before this and now they need financial support. If we close the shops, they will have nothing,” Saleh said.

At the clinic, Dr. Ahmed Yunis said ailments included fever, diarrhea, parasite infections and stomach pains. There were 300 consultations a morning, and from 15 to 100 in the evening.

Asked if they had supplies and equipment, he said: “Right now we don’t have any problems. We don’t know about the future.”

More than 300 women in the camp have lost their husbands and are acting as head of household. Some children are without parents, though most of these were taken in by relatives or other families in keeping with Arab tradition.

Several thousand people are without documents, such as national ID cards and birth and marriage certificates.

“Either Daesh did not issue documents or issued invalid ones. Others fled without documents,” said Nicolo Chiesa of Terre des Hommes Italy, who was working with local court officials to register people and reissue new papers.

Only 23 families have so far returned to Mosul from the camp. One of them came back, deputy manager Razhan Dler said.

“They said there was nothing for them in Mosul.”


Life in parts of Mosul is returning to normal, especially in the east, which was recaptured in January. Shops and markets are open but destruction left some areas looking like a moonscape.

Sporadic fighting still takes place as the last few ISIS fighters hold out in small pockets.

UNICEF delivers water to half a million people a day, including 3.3 million liters in and around East and West Mosul.

The city’s main hospital is a total ruin. The principal hospital serving West Mosul has returned to daily operations.

It deals with fewer war-related injuries but still gets several a day, Dr Abdulmohsen Mohammud said. “Now we are getting a lot of dehydrated kids, children with malnutrition,” he said.

Maternity cases are also a challenge. In the past two weeks they had 50 caeserean and 102 normal births.

UNICEF said that as fighting subsided, vulnerable unaccompanied children arrived at medical facilities and reception areas. Some babies were found in the debris.”Children’s deep physical and mental scars will take time to heal,” it said in a statement. “Some 650,000 boys and girls, who have lived through the nightmare … paid a terrible price.”

The World Food Programme said thousands of families needed emergency food assistance to survive. The government and the international community must begin rebuilding Mosul and restore basic services immediately as tens of thousands of people were likely to return soon, aid organizations said.

“The Mosul victory is definitely the beginning of a new era in Iraq. We hope this new era will be an era of reconciliation and reconstruction,” the European Union ambassador to Iraq, Patrick Simonnet, told Reuters as he visited West Mosul.


Protection of civilians was a priority, he said, including avoiding collective punishment of suspected IS sympathizers. The government must investigate reports of revenge attacks and re-establish the rule of law, he said.

He said it was important for the EU and other governments and international agencies to remain committed to rebuilding Mosul for the next two to three years. “There’s a cost -– an important cost in our view -– of not doing anything.”

Only national reconciliation and political reform could address the root causes of Islamic State, he said.

In one optimistic sign, many schools have reopened, among them the Kadiz Abdulajad School in West Mosul, near the Old City where fierce fighting took place in the battle’s final stages.

Among the lessons, as well as reading, writing and maths, they are given classes on mine and explosives awareness.

(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Peter Millership)

Iraq faces pockets of Islamic State resistance in Mosul’s Old City

FILE PHOTO: Military vehicles of Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) personnel are pictured in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

By Stephen Kalin

MOSUL (Reuters) – Iraqi forces faced further pockets of resistance from Islamic State militants in Mosul’s Old City on Friday, four days after the prime minister declared victory.

Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and explosions could be heard, residents said, while videos of alleged revenge attacks against people detained during the retaking of Mosul underlined future security challenges.

“Three mortars landed on our district,” a resident of Faysaliya, in east Mosul, just across the Tigris river, said by telephone.

A few hundred Islamic State insurgents swept into Mosul three years ago, imposed a reign of terror after the Iraqi army collapsed and declared a caliphate spanning Iraqi and Syrian territory seized in a shock offensive.

The victory of U.S.-backed Iraq forces in Mosul marked the biggest defeat for Islamic State, which is under siege in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, its operational base.

Even though the Sunni Muslim group’s caliphate is now crumbling, it is expected to revert to an insurgency and keep carrying out attacks in the Middle East and West.

Securing long-term peace in Iraq will not be easy.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faces the challenge of preventing revenge killings that could create more instability, along with sectarian tensions and ethnic strife that have dogged Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, urged Iraqis to avoid violence and sectarianism in his first Friday sermon since the proclamation of victory in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said it had used satellite imagery to verify that a video published on Facebook on Tuesday, showing armed men in military uniforms beating a detainee before throwing him from a height and then shooting at him, had been filmed in west Mosul.

The footage shows the men shooting at the body of another man already lying at the bottom of the perch. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

Iraq’s joint operations command said the allegations were being looked at closely and if any violations were found, those responsible would be held accountable. It also said that the videos could have been fabricated.

Three other videos posted this week by the same account appear to show members of various Iraqi security forces beating men wearing ordinary clothes. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iraq collectively punishing Islamic State families: HRW

A military vehicle of Iraqi security forces is seen next to an old bridge destroyed by clashes in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

ERBIL (Reuters) – Human Rights Watch has accused Iraqi security forces of forcibly relocating at least 170 families of alleged Islamic State members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” as a form of collective punishment.

“Iraqi authorities shouldn’t punish entire families because of their relatives’ actions,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken from ISIS.”

Islamic State is also known as ISIS. An Iraqi military spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced victory over Islamic State in Mosul, ending three years of jihadist rule in the stronghold of their self-proclaimed caliphate.

Iraq’s government now faces the task of preventing revenge attacks against people associated with Islamic State that could, along with sectarian tensions, undermine efforts to create long-term stability in the country.

“The camps for so-called ISIS families have nothing to do with rehabilitation and are instead de facto detention centers for adults and children who have not been accused of any wrongdoing,” Fakih said. “These families should be freely permitted to go where they can live safely.”

Iraqi authorities have opened the first of what they describe as “rehabilitation” camps in Bartalla, just east of Mosul. Human Rights Watch says the official purpose of the camp is to enable psychological and ideological rehabilitation.

“Forced displacements and arbitrary detentions have been taking place in Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Nineveh governorates, altogether affecting hundreds of families,” the group said.

“Iraqi security and military forces have done little to stop these abuses, and in some instances participated in them.”

Human Rights Watch said it visited Bartalla camp and interviewed 14 families, each with up to 18 members.

“New residents said that Iraqi Security Forces had brought the families to the camp and that the police were holding them against their will because of accusations that they had relatives linked to ISIS,” said Human Rights Watch.

“Medical workers at the camp said that at least 10 women and children had died traveling to or at the camp, most because of dehydration.”

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Iraq strikes Islamic State in Mosul days after declaring victory

Destroyed buildings from clashes are seen in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces clashed with Islamic State militants holding out in Mosul’s Old City on Wednesday, more than 36 hours after Baghdad declared victory over the jihadists in what they had made the de facto Iraqi capital of their self-declared caliphate.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s victory announcement signaled the biggest defeat for the hardline Sunni group since its lightning sweep through northern Iraq three years ago. But pockets of Mosul remain insecure and the city has been heavily damaged by nearly nine months of grueling urban combat.

About 900,000 people fled the fighting, with more than a third sheltered in camps outside Iraq’s second largest city and the rest living with family and friends in other neighborhoods.

Civilian activity has quickly returned to much of Mosul and work to repair damaged homes and infrastructure is underway, but authorities have not prepared a post-battle plan for governance and security in the city, officials say.

Iraqi forces exchanged gunfire with the militants in their final Mosul redoubt just before midnight and into the morning hours, three residents living just across the Tigris River from the area told Reuters.

Army helicopters strafed the Old City and columns of smoke rose into the air, though it was unclear if these came from controlled explosions or from bombs set off by Islamic State, the residents said by phone.

“We still live in an atmosphere of war despite the victory announcement two days ago,” said Fahd Ghanim, 45. Another resident said the blasts shook the ground around half a kilometer away.

An Iraqi military official attributed the activity to “clearing operations”.

“There are Daesh (fighters) hiding in different places,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “They disappear here and pop up there, then we target them.”

Media access to the area has been heavily restricted since Abadi claimed victory on Monday, hailing “the collapse of the terrorist state”.

Footage released by the Islamic State news agency Amaq entitled “Fighting till the last gasp” and allegedly filmed in Mosul’s Maydan district showed militants mixed in with civilians and unidentified corpses lying amid the rubble of an urban battlefield. Reuters could not authenticate the video.


The Iraqi official declined to estimate the number of militants or civilians remaining in the Old City, but the top U.S. general in Iraq said on Tuesday that as many as a couple of hundred IS insurgents could still be in Mosul.

“There are bypassed holdouts. We haven’t cleared every building in this city the size of Philadelphia. That’s going to have to be done, and there are also hidden IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told reporters. “There are still going to be losses from the Iraqi security forces as they continue to secure Mosul.”

The U.S.-led coalition said it had conducted three air strikes on IS in the Mosul area on Tuesday, targeting militants, machine-gun emplacements and rocket-propelled grenade systems.

South of the city, Iraqi security forces repelled an IS attack launched from western desert areas on the village of al-Jaran, a tribal fighter said.

Reinforcements also arrived to help government forces oustmilitants armed with machine guns and mortars from the village of Imam Gharbi, further to the south. IS had taken around 75 percent of the village since storming it last week.

These are the kind of asymmetric, guerrilla-style strikes Islamic State is expected to concentrate on now as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces regain control over cities the group captured during its shock 2014 offensive.

Another attack on a border guard convoy in western Anbar province, near the Syrian border, killed two soldiers and wounded four on Tuesday, military sources said.

Separately, 28 Sunni Muslim civilians were kidnapped in the Iskandariya district south of Baghdad this week and 20 of them were found dead later, a police officer told Reuters.

Suspects detained by the authorities said they belonged to the Shi’ite Muslim Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. A Baghdad-based spokesman for the group, whose fighters are taking part in the Shi’ite-led government’s campaign against Islamic State, said he had no knowledge of the incident.

The government’s victory in Mosul may rekindle revenge attacks and fresh violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites, a sectarian divide that tipped Iraq into civil war after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State tightens grip on village near Mosul after defeat

Iraqi Federal Police celebrate in the Old City of Mosul. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

By Ghazwan Hassan

TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) – Islamic State has captured most of a village south of Mosul despite losing control of its stronghold in the city, an Iraqi army officer and residents said, deploying guerrilla-style tactics as its self-proclaimed caliphate crumbles.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State in Mosul on Monday, marking the biggest defeat for the hardline Sunni group since its lightning sweep through northern Iraq three years ago.

But the militants, armed with machine guns and mortars, have now seized more than 75 percent of Imam Gharbi, a village on the western bank of the Tigris river some 70 km (44 miles) south of Mosul, and reinforcements are expected, the Iraqi army officer said.

Islamic State launched its attack on Imam Gharbi last week, in the kind of strike it is expected to deploy now as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces regain control over cities the group captured during its shock 2014 offensive.

Mosul resident Hind Mahmoud said by telephone that she had heard exchanges of gunfire in the Old City and seen an Iraqi army helicopter firing on Islamic State militants on Tuesday.

Stripped of Mosul, Islamic State’s dominion in Iraq will be reduced to mainly rural, desert areas west and south of the city.

Islamic State also faces pressure in its operational base in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces have seized territory on three sides of the city.

The campaign to retake Mosul from the militants was launched last October by a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias, with a U.S.-led coalition providing key air and ground support.

Abadi’s government in Iraq now faces a difficult task managing the sectarian tensions which enabled Islamic State to gain supporters in the country among fellow Sunnis, who say they were marginalized by the Shi’ite-led government.

The U.S.-led coalition warned that victory in Mosul did not mark the end of the group’s global threat.

“Now it is time for all Iraqis to unite to ensure ISIS (Islamic State) is defeated across the rest of Iraq and that the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq are not allowed to return again,” Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend said in a statement.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Iraqi PM declares victory over Islamic State in Mosul

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) holds an Iraqi flag as he announces victory over Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, July 10, 2017. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Isabel Coles and Stephen Kalin

MOSUL/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister declared victory over Islamic State in Mosul on Monday, three years after the militants seized the city and made it the stronghold of a “caliphate” they said would take over the world.

“I announce from here the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism which the terrorist Daesh announced from Mosul,” Haider al-Abadi said in a speech shown on state television, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

A 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias launched the offensive to recapture the northern city from the militants in October, with key air and ground support from a U.S.-led coalition.

Abadi, wearing a black military uniform and flanked by commanders from the security forces, thanked troops and the coalition. But he warned that more challenges lay ahead.

“We have another mission ahead of us, to create stability, to build and clear Daesh cells, and that requires an intelligence and security effort, and the unity which enabled us to fight Daesh,” he said before raising an Iraqi flag.

Iraq declared a week-long holiday to mark the victory. People celebrated in the streets of the capital Baghdad and southern cities.

Abadi arrived in Mosul on Sunday to congratulate military commanders who have waged a nearly nine-month battle to recapture the city, many parts of which were reduced to rubble.

Gunfire and explosions could be heard earlier in the day as the last few Islamic State positions were pounded.

The coalition said in a statement Iraqi forces were in “firm control” of Mosul, but some areas still needed to be cleared of explosive devices and possible Islamic State fighters in hiding.

Around the time of Abadi’s announcement, Islamic State released a statement claiming to have mounted an attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul. Reuters could not immediately verify the report.

Abadi had been meeting military and political officials in Mosul in an atmosphere of celebration that contrasts with the fear that spread after a few hundred Islamic State militants seized the city and the Iraqi army crumbled in July 2014.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shocked the Middle East and Western powers three years ago by appearing at the pulpit of Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque to declare the caliphate and himself the leader of the world’s Muslims.

A reign of terror followed which eventually alienated even many of those Sunni Muslims who had supported the group as allies against Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Opponents of Islamic State were executed and such crimes as smoking a cigarette were punishable by public whipping.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the Shi’ites have been politically dominant in Iraq but the country has been racked by ethnic conflict.


In the aftermath of victory in Mosul, Abadi’s government faces the task of managing the sectarian tensions there and elsewhere that enabled Islamic State to win support, and the threat of a wave of revenge violence in the city.

The coalition warned that victory in Mosul did not mark the end of the group’s global threat.

“Now it is time for all Iraqis to unite to ensure ISIS (Islamic State) is defeated across the rest of Iraq and that the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq are not allowed to return again,” Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said in a statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Iraq and said Islamic State’s days were numbered. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the victory “a critical milestone” in the war against Islamic State.

Baghdadi has fled the city and his whereabouts are unknown. Reports have circulated that he is dead but Iraqi and Western officials say they cannot corroborate this.

His death or capture would not be the end of Islamic State, which still controls areas south and west of Mosul and which is now expected to take to the desert or mountains to wage an insurgency.

The militants are likely to keep trying to launch attacks on the West and inspiring violence by “lone wolves” or small groups of the kind mounted recently in Britain, France and elsewhere.

But the loss of Iraq’s second-largest city is a grave body blow to Islamic State.

Islamic State is also under heavy pressure in its operational headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa. But a concern shared by the United States and its coalition allies is that Iran could fill the vacuum left by the Sunni militants to expand in both Iraq and Syria.

Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial branch of Shi’ite Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said on Monday Iran had sent “thousands of tonnes” of arms and fighter jets to Iraq to help it fight Islamic State, Iranian media reported.


The stench of corpses along Mosul’s streets was a reminder of the gruelling urban warfare required to dislodge Islamic State.

Much of the city of 1.5 million has been destroyed in the fighting, its centuries-old stone buildings flattened by air strikes and other explosions. One of Islamic State’s last acts was to blow up the historic al-Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret.

Thousands of people have been killed. The United Nations says 920,000 civilians have fled their homes since the military campaign began in October. Close to 700,000 people are still displaced.

“It’s a relief to know that the military campaign in Mosul is ending. The fighting may be over, but the humanitarian crisis is not,” said U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande.”Many of the people who have fled have lost everything. They need shelter, food, health care, water, sanitation and emergency kits. The levels of trauma we are seeing are some of the highest anywhere. What people have experienced is nearly unimaginable.”

Iraqi soldiers relaxed. Some swam in the Tigris river which runs through the city. One wiped the sweat from his face with an Islamic State flag.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Andrew Roche)