Islamic State on verge of defeat after fresh losses in Syria, Iraq

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters fire a cannon against Islamic State militants in Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017.

By Angus McDowall and Raya Jalabi

BEIRUT/ERBIL (Reuters) – Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate was on the verge of final defeat on Friday, with Syrian government forces capturing its last major city on one side of the border and Iraqi forces taking its last substantial town on the other.

The losses on either side of the frontier appear to reduce the caliphate that once ruled over millions of people to a single Syrian border town, a village on a bank of the Euphrates in Iraq and some patches of nearby desert.

Officials on both sides of the border said its final defeat could come swiftly, although they still fear it will reconstitute as a guerrilla force, capable of waging attacks without territory to defend.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced that government forces had captured al-Qaim, the border town where the Euphrates spills from Syria into Iraq. That leaves just the village of Rawa further down river on the opposite bank still in the hands of the ultra-hardline militants, who swept through a third of Iraq in 2014.

On the Syrian side, government forces declared victory in Deir al-Zor, the last major city in the country’s eastern desert where the militants still had a presence. Government forces are now about 40 km away from Albu Kamal, the Syrian town across the border from al-Qaim, and preparing for a final confrontation.

A U.S.-led international coalition which has been bombing Islamic State and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said before the fall of al-Qaim that the militant group had just a few thousand fighters left, holed up in the two towns on either side of the border.

“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate IS leaders,” spokesman U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

“As IS continues to be hunted into these smallest areas … we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group,” said Dillon. “The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat.”

The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to be hiding in the desert near the frontier.

BESIEGED IN ALL DIRECTIONS

Driven this year from its two de facto capitals — Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa — Islamic State has been squeezed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier by enemies that include most regional states and global powers.

In Iraq, it faces the army and Shi’ite armed groups, backed both by the U.S.-led international coalition and by Iran. In Syria, the U.S.-led coalition supports an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias north and east of the Euphrates, while Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the Syrian side, Friday’s government victory at Deir al-Zor, on the west bank of the Euphrates, ended a two month battle for control over the city, the center of Syria’s oil production. Islamic State had for years besieged a government enclave there until an army advance relieved it in early September, starting a battle for jihadist-held parts of the city.

“The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zor completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organization,” state media reported, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Engineering units were searching streets and buildings in Deir al-Zor for mines and booby traps left behind by Islamic State fighters, a Syrian military source told Reuters.

The source added that he did not believe the final battle at the Albu Kamal border town would involve “fierce resistance”, as many fighters had been surrendering elsewhere.

“Some of them will fight until death, but they will not be able to do anything,” he said. “It is besieged from all directions, there are no supplies, a collapse in morale, and therefore all the organization’s elements of strength are finished.”

Once Albu Kamal falls, “Daesh will be an organization that will cease to exist as a leadership structure,” the military source said. “It will be tantamount to a group of scattered individuals, it will no longer be an organization with headquarters, with leadership places, with areas it controls.”

In Iraq, Abadi congratulated his forces for capturing al-Qaim “in record time” only hours after commanders announced they had entered it. Earlier in the day, they seized the border checkpoint on the road to Albu Kamal in Syria.

Iraq’s joint operations command said the only territory left to capture is Rawa, a small village on the opposite bank of the Euphrates.

Iraq has been carrying out its final campaign to crush the Islamic State caliphate while also mounting a military offensive in the north against Kurds who held an independence referendum in September.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graf)

 

Fresh losses in Syria and Iraq push Islamic State ‘caliphate’ to the brink

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters fire a cannon against Islamic State militants in Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017.

By Angus McDowall and Raya Jalabi

BEIRUT/ERBIL (Reuters) – Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate was all but reduced on Friday to a pair of border towns at the Iraq-Syria frontier, where thousands of fighters were believed to be holding out after losing nearly all other territory in both countries.

Forces in Syria and Iraq backed by regional states and global powers now appear on the cusp of victory over the group, which proclaimed its authority over all Muslims in 2014 when it held about a third of both countries and ruled over millions.

On the Syrian side, government forces declared victory in Deir al-Zor, the last major city in the country’s eastern desert where the militants still had a presence. On the Iraqi side, pro-government forces said they had captured the last border post with Syria in the Euphrates valley and entered the nearby town of al-Qaim, the group’s last Iraqi bastion.

A U.S.-led international coalition which has been bombing Islamic State and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in Iraq’s al-Qaim and its sister town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side.

“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate IS leaders,” spokesman U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

He estimated there were 1,500-2,500 fighters left in al-Qaim and 2,000-3,000 in Albu Kamal.

But both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.

“As IS continues to be hunted into these smallest areas … we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group,” said Dillon. “The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat.”

Driven this year from its two de facto capitals — Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa — Islamic State is pressed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier.

In Iraq, it faces the army and Shi’ite armed groups, backed both by the U.S.-led international coalition and by Iran. In Syria, the coalition supports an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in areas north and east of the Euphrates, while Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the Syrian side, the government victory at Deir al-Zor, on the west bank of the Euphrates, ends a two month battle for control over the city, the center of Syria’s oil production. Islamic State had for years besieged a government enclave there until an army advance relieved it in early September, starting a battle for jihadist-held parts of the city.

“The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zor completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organization,” state media reported, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Engineering units were searching streets and buildings in Deir al-Zor for mines and booby traps left behind by Islamic State fighters, a Syrian military source told Reuters.

Government forces are still about 40km from the border at Albu Kamal, where they are preparing for a final showdown.

“The defeat of Albu Kamal practically means Daesh will be an organization that will cease to exist as a leadership structure,” the military source said. “It will be tantamount to a group of scattered individuals, it will no longer be an organization with headquarters, with leadership places, with areas it controls.”

 

BESIEGED FROM ALL DIRECTIONS

The source added that he did not believe the final battle at Albu Kamal would involve “fierce resistance”, as many fighters had been surrendering elsewhere.

“Some of them will fight until death, but they will not be able to do anything,” he said. “It is besieged from all directions, there are no supplies, a collapse in morale, and therefore all the organization’s elements of strength are finished.”

In Iraq, the military’s Joint Operations Command said on Friday the army, along with Sunni tribal fighters and Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilisation, had captured the main border crossing on the highway between al-Qaim and Albu Kamal.

They had also entered the town of al-Qaim itself, which is located just inside the border on the south side of the Euphrates. The offensive is aimed at capturing al Qaim and another smaller town further down the Euphrates on the north bank, Rawa.

Iraq has been carrying out its final campaign to crush the Islamic State caliphate while also mounting a military offensive in the north against Kurds who held an independence referendum in September.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graf)

 

Islamic State claims New York truck attacker is a ‘caliphate soldier’

A man prays after laying flowers at an existing roadside memorial, a ghost bike, that is now used to remember the victims of the Tuesday's attack alongside a bike path at Chambers Street in New York City, in New York, U.S., November 2, 2017.

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Islamic State has claimed responsibility, without providing proof, for a truck attack earlier this week that killed eight people in the deadliest assault on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.

The militant group on Thursday described accused attacker Sayfullo Saipov, 29, as “one of the caliphate soldiers” in a weekly issue of its Al-Naba newspaper.

The Uzbek immigrant was charged in federal court on Wednesday with acting in support of Islamic State by plowing a rented pickup truck down a popular riverside bike trail, crushing pedestrians and cyclists and injuring a dozen people in addition to those killed.

According to the criminal complaint against him, Saipov told investigators he was inspired by watching Islamic State propaganda videos on his cellphone, felt good about what he had done, and asked for permission to display the group’s flag in his room at Bellevue Hospital.

Saipov was taken to Bellevue after being shot in the abdomen by a police officer before his arrest.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called for Saipov to receive the death penalty, said in a Twitter post on Friday that Islamic State had claimed as their soldier the “Degenerate Animal” who killed and wounded “the wonderful people on the West Side” of Lower Manhattan.

“Based on that, the Military has hit ISIS “much harder” over the last two days. They will pay a big price for every attack on us!” Trump tweeted.

Earlier this week, Trump suggested sending Saipov to the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, where terrorism suspects apprehended overseas are incarcerated. But on Thursday, he said doing so would be too complicated.

The U.S. president has also urged Congress to end the Diversity Immigrant Visa program under which Saipov entered the United States in 2010.

The diversity program, signed into law in 1990 by Republican President George H.W. Bush, was designed to provide more permanent resident visas to people from countries with low U.S. immigration rates.

Five Argentine tourists, a Belgian woman, a New Yorker and a New Jersey man were killed in Tuesday afternoon’s attack.

The attack unfolded just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, where some 2,600 people were killed when suicide hijackers crashed two jetliners into the Twin Towers 16 years ago.

One of the two criminal counts Saipov faces, violence and destruction of motor vehicles causing the deaths of eight people, carries the death penalty if the government chooses to seek it, prosecutors said.

Saipov waived his right to remain silent or have an attorney present when he agreed to speak to investigators from his hospital bed, the criminal complaint said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said it has located another Uzbek man, Mukhammadzoir Kadirov, 32, who it said was wanted for questioning as a person of interest in the attack.

Citing an unnamed law enforcement official, ABC News reported on Friday that Saipov placed a telephone call to Kadirov immediately before he carried out the attack. ABC News said the significance of the call was not known.

 

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

 

U.N. team to collect evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss adopting a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017.

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations Security Council on Thursday approved the creation of a U.N. investigative team to collect, preserve and store evidence in Iraq of acts by Islamic State that may be war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

The 15-member council unanimously adopted a British-drafted resolution, after months of negotiations with Iraq, that asks Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish a team “to support domestic efforts” to hold the militants accountable.

Use of the evidence collected by the team in other venues, such as international courts, would “be determined in agreement with the Government of Iraq on a case by case basis.”

U.N. experts said in June last year that Islamic State was committing genocide against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq to destroy the minority religious community through killings, sexual slavery and other crimes.

International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman who was enslaved and raped by Islamic State fighters in Mosul, have long pushed Iraq to allow U.N. investigators to help.

Activist Amal Clooney (R) attends a United Nations Security Council meeting set to adopt a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan

Activist Amal Clooney (R) attends a United Nations Security Council meeting set to adopt a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

The Security Council met during the annual gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly.

Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari officially requested international help in a letter to the Security Council last month. The council could have established an inquiry without Iraq’s consent, but Britain wanted Iraq’s approval.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul, the militants’ capital in northern Iraq, after a nine-month campaign.

 

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

 

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.

REVENGE

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.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

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)

Iraqi PM formally 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

MOSUL (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally declared victory over Islamic State in the city of Mosul on Monday, marking the biggest defeat for the group since it declared a caliphate three years ago.

“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,” he said in a speech shown on state television, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The fall of Mosul effectively marks the end of the Iraqi half of the Islamic State caliphate, which also includes territory in Syria. The group still controls territory west and south of the city.

A 100,000-strong coalition of Iraqi government units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias launched the offensive to recapture the 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.

About 900,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, and thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed.

The whereabouts of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who announced the founding of the caliphate from Mosul three years ago, is not clear.

There have been several unconfirmed claims of his death. U.S. and Iraqi military sources say he may be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria.

 

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Michael Georgy and Andrew Roche)

 

Mosul battle to end in days as troops advance in Old City

A displaced Iraqi child eats after fleeing with his family during the fights between the Iraqi army and Islamic State militants, in the old city in Mosul, Iraq June 26, 2017.

By Marius Bosch and Khaled al-Ramahi

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The battle to wrest full control of the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State will be over in a few days, the Iraqi military said on Monday, as elite counter-terrorism units fought militants among the narrow alleyways of the historic Old City.

An attempted fight-back by militants failed on Sunday night and Islamic State’s grip on the city, once its de facto capital in Iraq, was weakened, a senior commander said.

“Only a small part (of the militants) remains in the city, specifically the Old City,” Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) in Mosul, told Reuters.

“From a military perspective, Daesh (Islamic State) is finished,” Assadi said. “It has lost its fighting spirit and its balance. We are making calls to them to surrender or die.”

 

Iraqi security forces transport displaced civilians with an armoured fighting vehicle out of West Mosul during fighting with Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq

Iraqi security forces transport displaced civilians with an armoured fighting vehicle out of West Mosul during fighting with Islamic State militants in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq June 24, 2017. REUTERS/Marius Bosch

As CTS units battled militants in the densely-populated maze of tiny streets of the Old City, which lies by the western bank of the Tigris river, Assadi said the area under Islamic State control in Mosul was now less than two sq kms.

Mosul will fall “in very few days, God willing,” he added.

Up to 350 militants are estimated by the Iraqi military to be besieged in the Old City, dug in among civilians in crumbling houses and making extensive use of booby traps, suicide bombers and sniper fire to slow down the advance of Iraqi troops.

More than 50,000 civilians, about half the Old City’s population, remain trapped behind Islamic State lines with little food, water or medicines, according to those who escaped.

 

A displaced Iraqi family flees during the fight between the Iraqi army and Islamic State militants, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq

A displaced Iraqi family flees during the fight between the Iraqi army and Islamic State militants, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

A U.S.-led international coalition is providing air and ground support in the eight-month-old offensive.

The militants last week destroyed the historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its leaning minaret from which their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago. The mosque’s grounds remain under the militants’ control.

Iraqi troops captured the neighborhood of al-Faruq in the northwestern side of the Old City facing the mosque, the military said on Monday.

PUSHING EAST

Iraqi forces took the eastern side of Mosul from Islamic State in January, after 100 days of fighting, and started attacking the western side in February.

Assadi said Iraqi forces had linked up along al-Faruq, a main street bisecting the Old City, and would start pushing east, toward the river. “It will be the final episode,” he said.

Aid organizations say Islamic State has stopped many civilians from leaving, using them as human shields. Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks.

Islamic State has carried out sporadic suicide bombings in parts of Mosul using sleeper cells. It launched a wave of such attacks late on Sunday, trying to take control of a district west of the Old City, Hay al-Tanak, and the nearby Yarmuk neighborhood.

Assadi said an attempt by the militants to take over the neighborhoods had failed and they were now besieged in one or two pockets of Hay al-Tanak.

Security forces were searching the two neighborhoods house to house, as a curfew was still in force over parts of western Mosul, witnesses said.

Social media carried posts showing black smoke and reports that it came from houses and cars set alight by the militants. Some of the residents who had fled the fighting returned to areas where the curfew was partially lifted, witnesses said.

The authorities did not confirm a report on Mosul Eye, an anonymous blogger who supplied information on the city during the militants’ rule, that 12 civilians had been killed in the attacks.

The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate”, but Islamic State remains in control of large areas of both Iraq and Syria.

Islamic State’s Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is assumed to be hiding in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. There has been no confirmation of Russian reports over the past days that he has been killed.

In Syria, the insurgents’ “capital” Raqqa, is nearly encircled by a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led coalition.

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Iraqi forces free hundreds of civilians in Mosul Old City battles as death toll mounts

Displaced civilians from Mosul's Old City, the last district in the hands of Islamic State militants, flee during fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq June 24, 2017. REUTERS/Marius Bosch

By Marius Bosch

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces opened exit routes for hundreds of civilians to flee the Old City of Mosul on Saturday as they battled to retake the ancient quarter from Islamic State militants mounting a last stand in what was the de facto capital of their “caliphate”.

U.S.-trained urban warfare units were channeling their onslaught along two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City, aiming to isolate the jihadist insurgents in four pockets.

The United Nations voiced alarm on Saturday at the rising death toll among civilians in the heavily populated Old City, saying as many as 12 were killed and hundreds injured on Friday.

“Fighting is very intense in the Old City and civilians are at extreme, almost unimaginable risk. There are reports that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of people are being held as human shields (by Islamic State),” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said in a statement. “Hundreds of civilians, including children, are being shot.”

Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi city in the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, during the next few days.

Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at insurgent emplacements in the Old City, a Reuters correspondent reported from a location near the front lines.

The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians marooned behind Islamic State lines.

There was a steady trickle of fleeing families on Saturday, some with injured and malnourished children. “My baby only had bread and water for the past eight days,” one mother said.

At least 100 civilians reached the safety of a government-held area west of the Old City in one 20-minute period, tired, scared and hungry. Soldiers gave them food and water.

More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are believed to be children, remain trapped in the crumbling old houses of the Old City, with little food, water or medical treatment.

The urban-warfare forces were leading the campaign to clear the Sunni Islamist militants from the maze of Old City alleyways, moving on foot house-to-house in locations too cramped for the use of armored combat vehicles.

Aid organizations and Iraqi authorities say Islamic State was trying to prevent civilians from leaving so as to use them as human shields. Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past three weeks.

A U.S.-led international coalition is providing ground and air support in the eight-month-old campaign to seize Mosul, the largest city the militants came to control in a shock offensive in Iraq and neighboring Syria three years ago.

U.S.-supported Iraqi government offensives have wrested back several important urban centers in the country’s west and north from Islamic State over the past 18 months.

HISTORIC MOSQUE BLOWN UP BY MILITANTS

Military analysts said Baghdad’s campaign to recover Mosul gathered pace after Islamic State blew up the 850-year-old al-Nuri mosque with its famous leaning minaret on Wednesday.

The mosque’s destruction, while condemned by Iraqi and U.N. authorities as another cultural crime by the jihadists, gave troops more freedom to press their onslaught as they no longer had to worry about damaging the ancient site.

It was from the mosque that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced himself to the world for the first time as the “caliph”, or ruler of all Muslims, on July 4, 2014. Mosul’s population at the time was more than 2 million.

Baghdadi fled into the desert expanse extending across Iraq and Syria in the early phase of the Mosul offensive, leaving the fighting there to local IS commanders, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Recent Russian reports that he was killed have not been confirmed by the coalition or Iraqi authorities.

The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the campaign dragged on as IS reinforced positions in inner-city neighborhoods of the city’s western half, carried out suicide car and motorbike bomb attacks, laid booby traps and kept up barrages of sniper and mortar fire.

By this weekend, the area still under IS control was less than 2 square km (0.77 sq miles) in extent, skirting the western bank of the Tigris River that bisects Mosul.

Islamic State retaliated for government advances on Friday evening with a triple bombing in a neighborhood in eastern Mosul, which Baghdad’s forces recaptured in January.

The attack was carried out by three people who detonated explosive belts, killing five, including three policemen, and wounding 19, according to a military statement on Saturday.

The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of Islamic State’s “caliphate” as a quasi-state structure, but IS would still hold sizeable, mainly rural and small-town tracts of both Iraq and Syria.

In eastern Syria, Islamic State’s so-called capital, Raqqa, is now nearly encircled by a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition.

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State blows up historic Mosul mosque where it declared ‘caliphate’

Al-Hadba minaret at the Grand Mosque is seen through a building window in the old city of Mosul, Iraq June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

By Marius Bosch and Maher Chmaytelli

MOSUL/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Islamic State militants on Wednesday blew up the Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul and its famous leaning minaret, Iraq’s military said in a statement, as Iraqi forces seeking to expel the group from the city closed in on the site.

It was from this medieval mosque three years ago that the militants’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a self-styled “caliphate” spanning parts of Syria and Iraq.

”Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” Iraqi Prime Minister said in a brief comment on his website.

The Iraqis called the 150-foot (45-metre) leaning minaret Al-Hadba, or “the hunchback.” Baghdadi’s black flag had flown over it since June 2014.

Islamic State’s Amaq news agency accused American aircraft of destroying the mosque, a claim swiftly denied by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group.

“We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian told Reuters by telephone.

“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” U.S. Army Major General Joseph Martin, commander of the coalition’s ground component, said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.

The media office for Iraq’s military distributed a picture taken from the air that appeared to show the mosque and minaret largely flattened and reduced to rubble among the small houses of the Old City, the historic district where the militants are under siege.

A video seen on social media showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a belch of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, “The minaret, the minaret, the minaret.”

The mosque was destroyed as Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) units, which have been battling their way through Mosul’s Old City, got within 50 meters (164 feet) of it, according to an Iraqi military statement.

An Iraqi military spokesman gave the timing of the explosion as 9:35 p.m (1835 GMT).

“This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated,” said U.S. Major General Martin.

Iraqi forces said earlier on Wednesday that they had started a push toward the mosque.

”This will not prevent us from removing them, no, killing them not removing them, inside the Old City,” Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, senior CTS commander in Mosul, said in a video posted over a messaging app.

The forces on Tuesday had encircled the jihadist group’s stronghold in the Old City, the last district under Islamic State control in Mosul.

Baghdadi proclaimed himself “caliph,” or ruler of all Muslims, from the mosque’s pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Baghdadi’s speech from the mosque was the first time he revealed himself to the world, and the footage broadcast then is to this day the only video recording of him as “caliph.”

MINARET WAS VULNERABLE

Iraqi officials had privately expressed hope that the mosque could be retaken in time for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. The first day of the Eid falls this year on June 25 or 26 in Iraq.

“The battle for the liberation of Mosul is not yet complete, and we remain focused on supporting the Iraqi Security Forces with that objective in mind,” said Martin.

The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate,” even though Islamic State would still control territory west and south of the city, the largest over which they held sway in both Iraq and Syria.

Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. and Iraqi military sources.

The mosque was named after Nuruddin al‑Zanki, a noble who fought the early crusaders from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It was built in 1172-73, shortly before his death, and housed an Islamic school.

By the time renowned medieval traveler and scholar Ibn Battuta visited two centuries later, the minaret was leaning. The tilt gave the landmark its popular name: the hunchback.

It was built with seven bands of decorative brickwork in complex geometric patterns also found in Persia and Central Asia.

Nabeel Nouriddin, a historian and archaeologist specialising in Mosul and its Nineveh region, said the minaret had not been renovated since 1970, making it particularly vulnerable to blasts even if it was not directly hit.

The Mosque’s destruction occurred during the holiest period of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, its final 10 days. The night of Laylat al-Qadr falls during this period, marking when Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to prophet Mohammed.

Islamic State fighters have destroyed many Muslim religious sites, churches and shrines, as well as ancient Assyrian and Roman-era sites in Iraq and in Syria.

The group posted videos online in 2015 showing the destruction of artifacts in the Mosul museum, some of which dated from the 7th century BC. It is also suspected of selling artifacts.

(additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Phil Stewart in Washington; writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Toni Reinhold)

Iraqi forces advance on Mosul mosque where IS declared caliphate

A black jihadist flag hangs from Mosul's Al-Habda minaret at the Grand Mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014, in western Mosul, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Marius Bosch

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on Wednesday began a push towards the mosque in Mosul where Islamic State declared a self-styled caliphate three years ago, military officials said.

The forces had encircled the jihadist group’s stronghold in the Old City of Mosul, where the mosque is located, on Tuesday, they said.

The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) are 200 to 300 were meters (yards) away from the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, an Iraqi military statement said.

Major General Rupert Jones, the British deputy commander of the international coalition fighting Islamic State, told Reuters the Iraqi forces were about 300 meters from the mosque.

The U.S.-led coalition is providing air and ground support to the Mosul offensive that started on Oct. 17.

The militants’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself caliph from its pulpit after the insurgents overran parts of Iraq and Syria. His black flag has been flying over its famous leaning minaret since June 2014.

Iraqi officials have privately expressed the hope that the mosque could be captured by Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. The first day of the Eid falls this year on June 25 or 26 in Iraq.

The battle for the Old City is becoming the deadliest in the

eight-month-old offensive to capture Mosul, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq.

More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are children, are trapped in its old fragile houses with little food, water, medicine, no electricity and limited access to clinics.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday sick and wounded civilians escaping through Islamic State lines were dying in “high numbers”.

“We are trying to keep families inside their houses and, after we secure their block, we will evacuate them through safe routes,” Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, senior CTS commander in Mosul, told Iraqi state TV.

The militants are moving stealthily in the Old City’s maze of alleyways and narrow streets, through holes dug between houses, fighting back the advancing troops with sniper and mortar fire, booby traps and suicide bombers.

They have also covered many streets with sheets of cloth to obstruct air surveillance, making it difficult for the advancing troops to hit them without a risk to civilians.

“We are attacking simultaneously from different fronts to fraction them into smaller groups easier to fight,” said an officer from the Federal Police, another force taking part in the assault on the Old City,

The Iraqi army estimates the number of Islamic State fighters at no more than 300, down from nearly 6,000 in the city when the battle of Mosul started on Oct. 17.

The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate” even though Islamic State would continue to control territory west and south of the city, the largest they came to control in both Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi government initially hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the campaign took longer as militants

reinforced positions in civilian areas to fight back.

The militants are also retreating in Syria, mainly in the face of a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition. Its capital there, Raqqa, is under siege.

About 850,000 people, more than a third of the pre-war population of Mosul, have fled, seeking refuge with relatives or in camps, according to aid groups.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Angus MacSwan)