U.S.-backed Syrian force starts final battle in Islamic State enclave

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits on a vehicle near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis and Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian fighters launched an operation on Friday to clear the last remaining pocket of Islamic State fighters from the besieged eastern Syrian village of Baghouz after weeks of delays caused by the evacuation of thousands of civilians.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) moved on the enclave, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) after the last batch of civilians were removed, said Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office.

“Nothing remains in Baghouz except for terrorists. The battle … will not end until the elimination of Daesh and the liberation of the village,” he told Reuters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Bali said the initial fighting involved heavy weapons. Asked how long the battle would last, he said: “We expect a fierce and heavy battle.”

The Islamic State enclave at Baghouz, a tiny pocket on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists, who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the group continues to be seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory over the jihadists in one week.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry/Stephen Kalin in Beirut; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Syrian war will drag into next decade: senior Kurdish leader

Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish politician is seen in the town of Rmeilan, Hasaka province, Syria September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Russian-led effort to end the war in Syria will fail and the conflict looks set to extend into the next decade, a top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters in an interview.

Aldar Khalil, an architect of Kurdish-led plans for autonomous rule in northern Syria, also said the United States appears in “no hurry” to leave areas where it has helped Kurdish-led forces fight Islamic State, and that he expects ties with Washington to develop as U.S. recovery efforts proceed.

The Syrian Kurds are among the few winners in the almost seven-year-old war, having established control over large parts of the north with a powerful militia that has partnered with the U.S.-led coalition against IS.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, has asked them to take part in an international peace conference on Syria for the first time — a peace congress scheduled in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.

“Yes we are invited and we might take part in the show but it will not succeed,” Khalil, co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties, said by telephone.

He questioned what the hundreds of anticipated attendees could accomplish in two days and said more preparation was required.

U.N.-led diplomacy in Geneva was also set for more failure, he said, adding that the war would “ebb and flow” until at least 2021, the end of Assad’s current seven-year presidential term.

“I don’t expect any breakthrough in the Syrian situation before 2021 … it might even go on until ’25,” he said.

“Daesh (IS) might expand in other areas, and of course the Turks might try to stir up problems in some areas.”

The Syrian Kurds’ ascendancy in Syria has alarmed neighboring Turkey. Ankara views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of Kurdish parties in Turkey that have been fighting Ankara for more than three decades.

U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters has also strained ties between the NATO allies: Turkey on Wednesday summoned a top U.S. diplomat in Ankara to protest over U.S. support of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Khalil is seen as a key figure in plans to establish a federal region in northern Syria – a plan Washington has opposed despite backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the war with IS.

The Syrian Kurds say independence is not their goal. But Khalil said the Kurdish-led authorities would press ahead with unilateral autonomy plans, though elections to a new regional parliament have been postponed to allow more time to prepare.


With the fight against IS winding down, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month he expected to see a larger U.S. civilian presence in Syria, including contractors and diplomats to focus on stabilization and ensuring IS does not return.

Khalil declined to say how long the United States might maintain a foothold in northern Syria, but said that achieving U.S. goals of helping cities such as Raqqa to recover implied a commitment of at least 18 months to two years.

“These matters will not be completed in less time than this,” he said.

“I can’t confirm to you a long-term relationship, but at least for the foreseeable time, it seems they are not in a hurry to leave,” he said. Pointing to the Mattis remarks, he said he expected U.S. ties to northern Syria to develop further.

The Kurdish-led authorities have held two local elections since September, part of their plan to build new governing structures. Discussions are underway to decide when a third vote — aimed at electing a regional parliament — will happen.

Khalil said the delay was aimed partly at giving a chance for areas recently captured from IS to decide whether to participate.

Though Assad recently condemned the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and their allies as “traitors”, Khalil said the Syrian government was incapable of attacking areas they control and warned that if it tried to “all its forces will be killed”.

He warned that Islamic State sleeper cells posed a big threat. “The Daesh campaign is not over, now the more difficult phase has started,” he said.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Tillerson arrives in Iraq after rebuke from Baghdad over paramilitaries

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to a reporter's question alongside Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during a media availability after their meeting, in Doha, Qatar October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived on Monday in Iraq, hours after the government rebuked him for calling on it to send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.

Iraq is one of the few countries allied closely to both the United States and Iran, and Tillerson’s effort to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran appeared to have backfired, drawing a sharp statement from Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s office.

Tillerson visited Iraq a day after a rare joint meeting with Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s king Salman in the kingdom’s capital Riyadh.

After that meeting he called on Iraq to halt the work of the Tehran-backed paramilitary units, which have operated alongside government troops in battles against Islamic State and, since last week, in a lightning advance that seized the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish security forces.

Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.

Abadi’s office responded sharply.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him. It referred to the mainly Shi’ite paramilitaries, known as “Popular Mobilization”, as “patriots”.



The international battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.

Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq, and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces, even as Iran armed, trained and advised Shi’ite paramilitaries which often fought alongside the army.

The latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for U.S. policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.

Iran is the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Shi’ites, including Abadi, are the majority in Iraq which also has large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

Iran exhibited its sway over Baghdad’s policies during tensions over a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes, Kurdish officials say.

Baghdad responded to the vote by seizing the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the heart of any future homeland.

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.

Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, share Washington’s concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq.



Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Tillerson’s remarks. The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

Abadi has asserted his authority with the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the Iraqi army’s sweep through Kirkuk and other areas which were held by the Kurds.

The buildup at the Kurdish oil export pipeline is taking place northwest of Mosul, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security council said.

The loss of Kirkuk dealt a major blow to the Kurds, who had been steadily building an autonomous region in northern Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, who oppressed them for decades.

“We are concerned about continued military build-up of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces towards the Kurdistan Region,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) in a statement.

Elections for Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s presidency and parliament set for Nov. 1 will be delayed because political parties failed to present candidates, the head of the electoral commission Hendrean Mohammed told Reuters.

Parties have been unable to focus on the elections because

of turmoil that followed the referendum, a Kurdish lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.


(additional reporting by Jon Landay; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Peter Graff)


British police arrest second man over London train bomb

The scene where a man was arrested in connection with an explosion on Parsons Green Tube station, in Hounslow, London, Britain, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – British police arrested a second man over the bombing of a London commuter train on Friday that injured 30 people and the security services lowered the threat level for an attack from its highest setting.

The 21-year-old man was detained under Britain’s terrorism laws in the west London suburb of Hounslow just before midnight on Saturday, London police said in a statement.

Police earlier arrested an 18-year-old man in the departure lounge of Dover port in what they called a “significant” step and then raided a property in Sunbury-on-Thames, a town near London and about four miles (six km) from Hounslow.

The home-made bomb shot flames through a packed carriage at west London’s Parsons Green Tube station during the Friday morning rush hour but apparently failed to detonate fully.

Islamic State claimed responsibility, as it has for other attacks in Britain this year, including two in London and one at a concert by American singer Ariana Grande in Manchester in May.

Interior minister Amber Rudd said on Sunday the second arrest showed it was not a lone-wolf attack but there was no evidence Islamic State was involved.

She said the threat level had been lowered to “severe” from “critical”, meaning another attack was highly likely rather than expected imminently.

“It is inevitable that so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, will reach in and try to claim responsibility. We have no evidence to suggest that yet,” Rudd told the BBC.

“But as this unfolds, and as the police do their investigations, we will make sure that we find out exactly how he was radicalized, if we can.”



Police said on Sunday they were searching a home in Stanwell in the county of Surrey near the perimeter of London’s Heathrow Airport, in connection with the Hounslow arrest.

Police continued to search the house in Sunbury nearby but said there were no safety risks to local residents.

Local media said the home belongs to a couple who have fostered hundreds of children, including refugees. The BBC said the couple, 88-year-old Ronald Jones and Penelope Jones, 71, had been honored by Queen Elizabeth for their work with children.

The bomb struck as passengers were traveling toward the center of the British capital. Some suffered burns and others were hurt in a stampede to escape. Health officials said none was thought to be in a serious condition.

Prime Minister Theresa May put Britain on its highest security level late on Friday and soldiers and armed police were deployed to strategic locations such as nuclear power plants.

On Saturday, armed police patrolled the streets near government departments in Westminster and guarded Premier League soccer grounds hosting matches.

The last time Britain was put on “critical” alert was after a suicide bomber killed 22 people at the Ariana Grande concert.

On that occasion, the threat level remained at critical for four days while police established whether the bomber had worked alone or with others. Prior to that it had not been triggered since 2007.


(Additional reporting by Andrew Heavens; editing by David Clarke)


Islamic State claims responsibility for attack on Iraqi embassy in Kabul

A member of the Afghan security forces aims his rifle during gun fire at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan July 31

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) – Militant group Islamic State on Monday claimed responsibility for an attack on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul that began with a suicide bomber blowing himself up at the main gate, allowing gunmen to enter the building and battle security forces.

The assault came a week after 35 people were killed in a Taliban attack on government workers in Kabul and underlines Afghanistan’s precarious security as the United States weighs an overhaul of its policy in the region.

Afghan security forces confronted three gunmen for hours before the interior ministry announced in mid-afternoon that the attack, in a normally busy business district of the capital, had been suppressed.

“Terrorist attack on Iraqi embassy in Kabul over after all terrorists killed,” the ministry said in a statement.

Islamic State’s Amaq agency said two attackers had blown up the gate, killing seven guards, and two fighters had broken into the compound.

There was no immediate official word on casualties but an Italian-operated hospital nearby said two injured people had been brought in for treatment.

Islamic State has carried out a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul, mainly targeting members of the mainly Shi’ite Hazara community, and fuelling concerns of a possible spillover into Afghanistan from fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The local branch of the movement, often called Daesh, is often known as Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region that now includes Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders say it has been severely hit by a campaign of drone strikes and joint Afghan and U.S. Special Forces operations, with hundreds of fighters and commanders killed.

However Afghan security officials say the movement operates in as many as nine provinces, from Nangarhar and Kunar in the east to Badakhshan, Jawzjan and Faryab in the north and Baghdis and Ghor in the west.

The Taliban, fighting to reestablish strict Islamic law 16 years after being expelled by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001, have opposed Islamic State.


(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Omar Fahmy and Nadine Awadalla in CAIRO; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)


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)


Brothers in arms: Iraqi armed groups grow as Islamic State shrinks

Iraqi fighters from Hashid Shaabi take part in a training at Makhmur camp in Iraq December

y John Davison

MOSUL, Iraq, April 3 (Reuters) – For Iraqi police officer Jassem and his brothers, the battle against Islamic State is personal. The militants captured and beheaded their father, a Shi’ite militiaman, in 2014; before that, the family lost another son fighting the jihadists.

“We were able to identify my dad’s body by the tattoo on his arm. The head wasn’t found. They had also drilled holes in his hands and cut fingers off,” 31-year-old Jassem told Reuters on the front line in Mosul as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State in the city.

After the murder, Jassem’s youngest brother signed up with the army and another joined a Shi’ite paramilitary group. With a further brother already with the Counter-Terrorism Service, that meant their mother had all four of her surviving sons at war.

“Mum wasn’t happy,” said Jassem, not giving his full name because he works in intelligence. But his brothers still answered the call to arms. “They said Iraq was falling apart, and they wanted to protect it,” he said.

The family from southern Iraq – far from Mosul which lies near the country’s northern border – is just one of many where entire sets of brothers have taken up arms against Islamic State out of revenge, duty or just to earn money.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are now set to drive the group from its stronghold of Mosul, taken in 2014 when the jihadists seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a caliphate. (Full Story)

But the fight has further militarised Iraqi society, pushing young men into the armed forces and, increasingly, sectarian and tribal militias. This has raised fears of new outbreaks of violence once the caliphate has crumbled.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric issued a fatwa in 2014, calling on all men able to carry arms to fight Islamic State, which is known in Arabic by its opponents as Daesh.

On another Mosul front line, Counter-Terrorism Service commando Hamza Kadhem said that before Islamic State arrived, he was the only one of five brothers to have picked up a gun. “The others all joined after the fatwa,” he said.

They joined the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, a state-run umbrella that includes Shi’ite militias. Two are deployed west of Mosul, and another two near the Syrian border, where Shi’ite fighters have played a crucial role in cutting off Islamic State supply lines.

Before the call-up, they had worked as farmers in the southern Kut region, more than 500 km (300 miles) away.

As well as Shi’ites from the south, young men from around Mosul – where Sunni Muslims are in the majority – are also keen to fight.

They are now flooding to join Sunni tribal militias also under the Hashid, security officials and militia leaders say. Many residents told Reuters in recent weeks they want to join, or know relatives and friends who are trying to do so.

“Many men are volunteering in the Hashid groups. They either want to fight terrorism or to get wages,” one security officer in the area said, declining to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly. “It’s easier than joining state armed forces. You just put your name down.”

He said the number of those seeking to join could be in the thousands, on top of the several thousand that local community leaders estimate are already in the Sunni tribal militias.

This would not pose security problems because the Hashid ultimately answer to the government and have limited powers, the officer added.


Provincial government officials, however, say the rising number of recruits to paramilitary forces and the formation of new militias is dangerous because it raises the risk of factional clashes.

“These Hashid groups are subservient to the people who lead them, not to the state,” said Abdul Rahman al-Wagga, a council member for Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital.

“So if a Hashid leader wants to impose himself in a certain region, and another sheikh or clan doesn’t like it, they might attack,” he told Reuters by phone. “I think after Daesh, these groups will not be reined in … Their agendas are party, political or regional, and won’t serve Nineveh, or Iraq.”

Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said turning to armed forces, particularly militias, was inevitable in an atmosphere where local communities fear for their own safety.

“Not only has the war further militarised Iraqi society, but there appears to be no pressure from the top or willingness from below to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate the militias that now occupy the diverse and former insurgent landscape,” he said.

As Iraqi government forces have moved deeper into Mosul city, the areas around it have increasingly come under the control of the expanding Hashid, who fly their flags at checkpoints and have set up offices in nearby towns.

Hashid officials say they are there to ensure Islamic State does not return, and that their local knowledge can make them more effective than federal police.

“Iraq’s security is our responsibility,” read a slogan painted on a building outside Mosul that is occupied by the new office of a Hashid group, and was formerly used by an Islamic State fighter and his family.

Most ordinary Iraqis, like the families of Jassem and Kadhem, do not want their sons to have to fight. But the young men see little choice after suffering at the hands of militants, and with few other ways to earn a living.

Former policeman Yassin Saleh, 47, sat in his wheelchair on a roadside outside Mosul last month after fleeing violence. “Two of my boys, who are 20 and 21, want to volunteer for the Hashid,” he said. “But I need them around to help me.”

Saleh lost both his legs to a car bomb planted by al Qaeda militants in 2008. Two months later, the fighters kidnapped and killed his eldest son.

“There will always be revenge. If people have killed someone’s dad or brother, they won’t just let it go,” he said. “But I can’t lose another son.”

(editing by David Stamp)

U.S.-backed Syrian force cuts last road out of Islamic State stronghold

An Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter walks with his weapon in northern Raqqa province, Syria

By Tom Perry and Humeyra Pamuk

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian militias cut the last main road out of Islamic State-held Raqqa on Monday, severing the highway between the group’s de facto capital and its stronghold of Deir al-Zor province, a militia spokesman said.

The development, confirmed by a British-based organization that monitors Syria’s war, marks a major blow against Islamic State, which is under intense military pressure in both Syria and Iraq.

It is losing ground to three separate campaigns in northern Syria – by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militias, by the Russian-backed Syrian army, and by Turkey and allied Syrian rebels.

“Cutting the road between Raqqa and Deir al-Zor means that practically the encirclement of the Daesh (Islamic State) capital is complete by land,” a Kurdish military source told Reuters, adding that the only remaining way out of the city was south across the Euphrates River.

“It is a big victory but there is still a lot to accomplish,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The SDF is an alliance of militias including the Kurdish YPG and Arab groups. It launched a campaign in November to encircle and ultimately capture Islamic State’s base of operations in Raqqa city, with air strikes and special forces support from a U.S.-led coalition.

Further west, the Syrian army has made its own, rapid progress against Islamic State in the past few weeks, advancing east from Aleppo city toward the Euphrates. The Syrian army last week captured the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State – an operation Russia said it had planned and overseen.

A Syrian military source told Reuters the army would press on to reach the jihadists’ main strongholds in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.

Syrian government forces, meanwhile, have taken over positions from a U.S.-backed militia in the northern city of Manbij on a frontline with Turkish-backed rebel forces, in line with a deal brokered by Russia, the militia’s spokesman said on Monday.

Last week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Manbij would be the next target in the campaign Turkey is waging alongside Syrian rebels in northern Syria against both Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG militia.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Monday Ankara was not planning a military campaign without coordinating with the United States and Russia.

The U.S. military has also deployed a small number of forces in and around Manbij to ensure that the different parties in the area do not attack each other, a Pentagon spokesman said.


Islamic State still controls swathes of Syria, including much of the center and nearly all the eastern province of Deir al-Zor stretching all the way to the Iraqi part of its self-declared caliphate.

The SDF has been the main U.S. partner against Islamic State in Syria. “The road is under the control of the SDF,” spokesman Talal Silo said in a voice message sent to Reuters. “The road between Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.”

There was no immediate word from Islamic State on the social media channels it uses to communicate news.

Air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition have destroyed the bridges across the Euphrates to Raqqa city, the British-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

The Observatory said families brought recently by Islamic State to Raqqa from areas to the west had been forced to cross the river by boat, reflecting the problem facing Islamic State in reaching the city.

In Iraq, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured the second of Mosul’s five bridges on Monday, part of a major onslaught that began in October to take back the city lost to Islamic State in 2014.


The Syrian army’s advance toward the Euphrates River from Aleppo has added to the pressure on Islamic State.

One of the targets of the army’s advance appears to be to secure the water supply to Aleppo, which is pumped from the village of al-Khafsa on the western bank of the Euphrates.

The Observatory said on Monday the army had advanced to within 8 km (5 miles) of al-Khafsa.

The Syrian army push has also had the effect of deterring further advances south by Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels as they carve out an effective buffer zone near the border in areas seized from Islamic State.

“The army will not stop in its military operations against Daesh, and will certainly reach its most important strongholds in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor. This is a national Syrian decision,” the Syrian military source told Reuters.

The source said the army was advancing at a rapid pace and there was “great dysfunction” in Islamic State’s leadership.

Turkey, a NATO member, wants its Syrian rebel allies to lead the Raqqa offensive, and U.S. support for the YPG is a major point of contention between the two states.

(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alison Williams)

Iraqi judo coach saved his black belt when Islamic State stormed Mosul club

Displaced Iraqi boys leave a tent school set by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) at Hassan Sham camp, east of Mosul, Iraq

y Ulf Laessing

GOGJALI, Iraq (Reuters) – His black belt and membership card were all that Iraqi judo coach Ali Mahmoud managed to save when Islamic State stormed his club in Mosul, turning the gym into an arms training camp for fighters.

A veteran judoka practising the modern martial art since the age of five, Mahmoud saw his career as coach ending when the militants banned judo as “un-Islamic” after they seized Iraq’s the city in June 2014.

As the 39-year-old arrived one night at his Karama club in the Samah district to train for a tournament in Georgia, the fighters seized the gym.

“Daesh (Islamic State) accused me of training police and soldiers to fight them,” said Mahmoud, who has fled the city since Iraqi forces launched a campaign in October to retake it.

“They saw me as enemy,” he said, showing his membership card from the Iraqi judo federation licensing him as coach in the northern city. He once won a national championship in his age group in 2012, he said.

To keep in shape Mahmoud tried discreetly exercising in public parks at night but gave up after a patrol of the Hisbah — the militants’ religious police enforcing their extreme rules such as flogging people caught smoking — stopped him.

“I was only doing simple workouts but they warned me to stop, saying what I was doing was wrong,” he said, standing at a market in the Gogjali suburb where he fled with his family when fighting reached his neighborhood.

“With one of my sons I was working out sometimes at home but I never invited anyone as it was too dangerous,” said Mahmoud who lost contact with his former judo mates during the two and a half years of Islamic State control.

“Some got killed, others fled,” he said. “Daesh (later) destroyed the club, looted everything.”

His account could not be verified as Samah remains a battle zone but several residents said Mosul sports clubs closed under Islamic State which seized such facilities to give young people weapons training.

Most youth gave up any activity — even street soccer — as parents fearing trouble kept them indoors. There were some limited exercises at schools run by Islamic State by many parents pulled them out worried they got brainwashed.

“I removed my four children from school after one year as they got trained in weapons and were taught wrong ideas,” said Walid Ahmed, a teacher. “So they stayed at home all the time.”

To get teenagers back to education and sports the United Nations has set up tent schools in camps for displaced people — dozens were dancing and singing at the Khazir camp east of Mosul.

“Daesh taught us things at school like counting bullets they were holding in their hands,” said Ahmed’s veiled daughter Marwa.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Jermey Gaunt)

Islamic State attacks Iraqi soldiers in Mosul

Iraqi forces backed by tribal militias during battle to retake a village from the Islamic State on the eastern bank of the river Tigris, Iraq

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State militants attacked Iraqi soldiers near a hospital in southeast Mosul on Wednesday, an army officer and the jihadist group’s new agency said, trying to repel the army’s deepest advances of the seven-week Mosul campaign.

The fighting came a day after the army’s operations commander for Mosul said soldiers surged into the city and took over the Salam hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris river which divides eastern and western Mosul.

Tuesday’s rapid advance marked a change in military tactics after more than a month of grueling fighting in the east of the city, in which the army has sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block.

But it left the attacking forces exposed, and the Islamic State news agency Amaq said on Wednesday some of them were surrounded. It said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the hospital, killing 20 soldiers. Eight armored personnel carriers were also destroyed in the fighting, Amaq said.

There was no official Iraqi military comment on the fighting but the army officer, whose forces were involved in the clashes, said they had come under multiple attacks by suicide car bombers in the Wahda district where the hospital is located.

“We managed to make a swift advance on Tuesday in al-Wahda but it seems that Daesh fighters were dragging us to an ambush and they managed later to surround some of our soldiers inside the hospital, he told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

He said an armored regiment and counter terrorism units, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, were sent to support the stranded troops early on Wednesday and had opened up a route out of the neighborhood.

“They have secured the position, evacuated the wounded and pulled out the destroyed military vehicles from around the hospital,” he said, adding that they were coming under fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Amaq said it attacked the relief convoy in Sumer district, south of Wahda near the outer edge of the city.

Iraqi forces have been battling for seven weeks to crush Islamic State in Mosul. The city was seized by the militants in 2014 and is the largest in Iraq or Syria under their control.

Defeating Islamic State in Iraq’s biggest northern city would help roll back the group’s self-styled caliphate over large parts of both countries.

(Additional reporting by Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)