Soleimani was Iran’s celebrity soldier, spearhead in Middle East

Soleimani was Iran’s celebrity soldier, spearhead in Middle East
By Babak Dehghanpisheh

(Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, helped Iran fight proxy wars across the Middle East by inspiring militias on the battlefield and negotiating with political leaders.

His death on Friday in a U.S. air strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport marked the end of a man who was a celebrity at home and closely watched by the United States, Israel and Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon said the strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.

Soleimani was responsible for clandestine overseas operations and was often seen on battlefields guiding Iraqi Shi’ite groups in the war against Islamic State.

He was killed along with top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Both men were seen as heroes in Iran’s fight against its enemies and state television heaped them with praise shortly after their deaths were announced.

The television showed footage of him with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and in war zones in military garb, including as a young high-school graduate commanding a unit in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s.

After that, he rose rapidly through the ranks of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to become chief of the Quds Force, a post in which he helped Iran form alliances in the Middle East as it came under pressure from U.S. sanctions that have devastated the Islamic Republic’s economy.

The United States designated the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization in 2019, part of a campaign of maximum pressure to force Iran to negotiate on its ballistic missile program and nuclear policy.

Soleimani had a pointed reply: any negotiation with the U.S. would be “complete surrender.”

Soleimani’s Quds Force shored up support for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Its successes have made Soleimani instrumental to the steady spreading of Iran’s clout in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.

Khamenei made Soleimani head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad’s government, and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

In the past few years, he has acquired a more public standing, with fighters and commanders in Iraq and Syria posting images on social media of him on the battlefield, his beard and hair always impeccably trimmed.

“WE ARE CLOSE TO YOU”

Soleimani’s growing authority within Iran’s military establishment was apparent in 2019 when Khamenei awarded him the Order of Zolfiqar medal, Iran’s highest military honor. It was the first time any commander had received the medal since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.

In a statement after Soleimani’s death, Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed him. His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, the Iranian leader said.

“Soleimani is … not a man working in an office. He goes to the front to inspect the troops and see the fighting,” a former senior Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview in 2014.

“His chain of command is only the Supreme Leader. He needs money, gets money. Needs munitions, gets munitions. Needs material, gets material,” the former Iraqi official said.

Soleimani was also in charge of intelligence gathering and covert military operations carried out by the Quds Force and in 2018 he publicly challenged U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I’m telling you Mr. Trump the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are,” said Soleimani, seen wagging an admonishing finger in a video clip distributed online.

“You will start the war but we will end it,” he said, with a checkered keffiya draped across the shoulders of his olive uniform.

“GETS WHAT HE WANTS”

Softly-spoken, Soleimani came from humble beginnings, born into an agricultural family in the town of Rabor in southeast Iran on March 11, 1957.

At 13, he traveled to the town of Kerman and got a construction job to help his father pay back loans, according to a first person account from Soleimani posted by Defa Press, a site focused on the history of Iran’s eight year war with Iraq.

When the revolution to oust the Shah began in 1978, Soleimani was working for the municipal water department in Kerman and organized demonstrations against the monarch.

He volunteered for the Revolutionary Guards and, after war with Iraq broke out in 1980, quickly rose through the ranks and went on to battle drug smugglers on the border with Afghanistan.

“Soleimani is a great listener. He does not impose himself. But he always gets what he wants,” said another Iraqi official, adding that he can be intimidating.

At the height of the civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite militants in Iraq in 2007, the U.S. military accused the Quds Force of supplying improvised explosive devices to Shi’ite militants which led to the death of many American soldiers.

Soleimani played such a pivotal role in Iraq’s security through various militia groups that General David Petraeus, the overall head of U.S. forces in Iraq at the time, sent messages to him through Iraqi officials, according to diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.

After a referendum on independence in the Kurdish north in 2017, Soleimani issued a warning to Kurdish leaders which led to a withdrawal of fighters from contested areas and allowed central government forces to reassert their control.

He was arguably even more influential in Syria. His visit to Moscow in the summer of 2015 was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.

His activities had made him a repeated target of the U.S. Treasury: Soleimani was sanctioned by the United States for the Quds Force’s support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other armed groups, for his role in Syria’s crackdown against protesters and his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Soleimani’s success in advancing Iran’s agenda had also put him in the crosshairs of regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Top Saudi intelligence officials looked into the possibility of assassinating Soleimani in 2017, according to a report in the New York Times in 2018. A Saudi government spokesman declined to comment, the Times reported, but Israeli military officials publicly discussed the possibility of targeting him.

(Editing by Michael Georgy, Philippa Fletcher and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Rock-throwing Iraqi militias quit U.S. embassy after protests

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the U.S. embassy’s perimeter and hurled rocks in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops and threatened reprisals against Tehran.

The demonstrators, angry at U.S. air strikes against the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group that killed at least 25 people, threw stones at the building while U.S. forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.

But by mid-afternoon, most appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shi’ite militia, which said the demonstrators’ message had been heard.

Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound, while others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.

Iraq’s military said all protesters had left by the evening.

The protests mark a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020, on Tuesday threatened to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.

On Tuesday, crowds chanted ‘Death to America!’, lit fires, and smashed surveillance cameras. They breached an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.

BIGGEST U.S. EMBASSY

The huge embassy, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad’s fortified “green zone” during American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the biggest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world.

Washington said its diplomats were safe and was rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.

The embassy said all public consular operations were suspended and all future appointments canceled.

The anti-American action comes after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iran-backed militias which support it. Many Iraqis complain their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.

Iraq’s government has long faced frictions in its close relations with the two foes. Trump spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and demanded Iraq protect the embassy.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday condemned the U.S. attacks. Iran summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to complain about what it described as “warmongering” words from Washington.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

U.S. officials said 750 extra troops would initially be based out of Kuwait and as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in coming days.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces. The air strikes have galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.

Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington’s presence in Iraq was their main goal.

‘DEVIL’S DEN’

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State fighters, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from militants who had overrun a third of Iraq.

Since then, U.S. troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias have been incorporated into the security forces.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.

The militia may have decided to pull back from the embassy to avoid making him look weak or to avert clashes with government forces.

Overnight, demonstrators had pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses during the morning, indicating plans to stay before the withdrawal call.

“Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s den is closed off forever, but don’t give anyone an excuse to make your protest violent. Don’t clash with security,” one protest leader told the crowd from a stage erected at the embassy before the departure.

Young men, some in fatigues, waved militia flags and chanted “Death to America” as Apache helicopters circled above.

The embassy’s outer walls bore scorch marks and graffiti.

“Iraq is not safe for America and its followers,” one read.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Andrew Cawthorne)

Violent protests erupt around U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after U.S. air strikes

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Protesters and militia fighters enraged by U.S. air strikes on Iraq staged a violent demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, torching a security post and hurling stones as security forces and embassy guards hit back with stun grenades and tear gas.

Iraqi officials said the ambassador and other staff had been evacuated but this could not be confirmed with American officials.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence and said Tehran would be held responsible.

The protesters and militiamen stormed and burned a security post at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy but did not breach the main compound, Reuters witnesses said.

They threw stones at the gate while others chanted, “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces were deployed around the main gate to prevent them entering the embassy. U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces later reinforced them.

Medical sources said 12 militiamen were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

U.S. planes on Sunday had attacked bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia – an action that risks drawing Iraq further into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran at a time when mass protests are challenging Iraq’s political system.

The attack on the Kataib Hezbollah militia was in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet.

“Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified.”

Two Iraqi foreign ministry officials said the U.S. ambassador and other staff had left, but they did not say when.

The Washington Post reported that inside the embassy, U.S. diplomats and staffers were huddled in a fortified safe room, according to two reached by a messaging app.

A few hours into the protest, tear gas was fired in an attempt to disperse the crowd and some of the militias encouraged protesters through loudspeakers to leave.

“We have delivered our message, please leave the area to avoid bloodshed,” one announcement said.

Security guards inside the embassy also fired stun grenades at protesters outside the gates of the compound. Reuters correspondents heard at least seven loud bangs.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiamen and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away from the scene.

‘CLOSED IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE’

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in their thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government.

But on Tuesday, it was the militias who protested, spraying “Closed in the name of the people” on the gates of the U.S. Embassy and smashed the surveillance cameras around the building with bricks and stones.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior leaders were among the protesters.

“Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave,” Khazali told Reuters.

Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shi’ite militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, and Badr Organisation leader Hadi al-Amiri were also at the protest.

There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq supporting local forces, though Iraq has rejected any long-term presence of additional U.S. forces that crossed its border during an American withdrawal from northern Syria.

Sunday’s air strikes killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55.

(Reporting By Ahmed Rasheed, Maher Nazeh and Thaier al-Sudani; writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

France will strike Syria chemical arms sites if used to kill: Macron

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he addresses a news conference in Varanasi, India, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PARIS (Reuters) – France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found “irrefutable evidence” chemical weapons had been used to kill.

“The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed — namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect — we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes,” Macron said.

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

“We are cross-matching our own information with that of our allies but to put it very clearly we have an independent capacity to identify targets and launch strikes where needed.”

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert U.S. air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

“This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)

Dozens of fleeing civilians killed, wounded by Islamic State mortar fire in Mosul

A displaced Iraqi woman who fled her home, carries a mattress in al-Zanjili neighbourhood, north of Old City district of Mosul, Iraq.

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least seven civilians were killed and 23 wounded by Islamic State mortar shells as they tried to flee Mosul’s militant-controlled Zanjili district on Thursday, Iraqi police said.

Zanjili is part of the enclave that remains in the hands of Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city, alongside the Old City centre and the Medical City hospitals complex.

U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces retook eastern Mosul in January and began a new push on Saturday to capture the enclave where about 200,000 people are trapped, regularly dropping leaflets telling families to flee.

The wounded from Zanjili were taken to a field clinic, a police officer told Reuters, adding that more people could have been killed while trying to flee. They were part of the first group of civilians who have managed to escape.

Several dozen other civilians managed to reach government-held lines unhurt, using the same exit route, the officer said.

The population in the Islamic State-held enclave live in harrowing conditions, running low on food, water and medicine, and with limited access to hospitals, the United Nations said on Sunday.

MILITANTS MOVE PRISONERS

The militants began moving their prisoners out of the Medical City district as Iraqi forces advanced on them, two residents speaking by phone said, asking not to be identified.

Islamic State used basements in the Medical City as jails for former army and police officers and also people violating a code of conduct which forbids such activities as selling cigarettes and smoking.

The militants ordered dozens of families living in Zanjili district to move into the Old City to prevent them escaping toward the Iraqi forces, a resident told Reuters on Wednesday.

The Mosul offensive, now in its eighth month, has taken much longer than expected, with Iraqi government advances slowed by the need to avoid civilian casualties.

An Iraqi Federal Police member fires an RPG towards Islamic State militants during a battle in western Mosul.

An Iraqi Federal Police member fires an RPG towards Islamic State militants during a battle in western Mosul. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

The fall of the city would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the ”caliphate” declared in 2014 over parts of Iraq and Syria by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in speech from a historic mosque in Mosul’s old city.

In Syria, Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-air strikes are besieging Islamic State forces in the city of Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital in that country.

The militants have been countering the offensive with suicide car and motorbike bombs, snipers, booby-traps and mortar fire.

About 700,000 people, about a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps.

Displaced Iraqi people carry their belongings as they flee from western Mosul, Iraq May 31, 2017.

Displaced Iraqi people carry their belongings as they flee from western Mosul, Iraq May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

Trump orders military strikes against Assad airbase in Syria

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile in Mediterranean Sea

By Phil Stewart and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON/PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S President Donald Trump said on Thursday he ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airfield from which a deadly chemical weapons attack was launched, declaring he acted in America’s “national security interest” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. officials said the military fired dozens of cruise missiles against the airbase controlled by Assad’s forces in response to the poison gas attack on Tuesday in a rebel-held area.

Facing his biggest foreign policy crisis since taking office in January, Trump took the toughest direct U.S. action yet in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, raising the risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two main military backers.

“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said from his resort in Mar-a-Lago where he was attending a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Some 50 Tomahawk missiles were launched from U.S. Navy warships, the USS Porter and USS Ross, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, striking multiple targets – including the airstrip, aircraft and fuel stations – on the Shayrat Air Base, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Damage estimates from the strikes, which were conducted at 8:45 p.m. EDT, were not immediately known.

Syrian state TV said that “American aggression” had targeted a Syrian military base with “a number of missiles and cited a Syrian military source as saying the strike had “led to losses.”

Trump said: “Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.

“It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said.

“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council,” he added.

Trump ordered the strikes just a day after he pointed the finger at Assad for this week’s chemical attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied it was behind the attack.

Trump appeared to have opted for measured and targeted air attacks instead of a full-blown assault on Assad’s forces and installations.

The relatively quick response to the chemical attack came as Trump faced a growing list of global problems, from North Korea to China to Iran and Islamic State, and may have been intended to send a message to friends and foes alike of his resolve to use military force if deemed necessary.

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield.

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image released by the U.S. Defense Department on April 6, 2017 after announcing U.S. forces conducted a cruise missile strike against the Syrian Air Force airfield. DigitalGlobe/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS

‘SOMETHING SHOULD HAPPEN’

Trump said earlier on Thursday that “something should happen” with Assad but did not specifically call for his ouster.

Officials from the Pentagon and State Department met all day to discuss plans for the missile strikes.

U.S. military action put the new president at odds with Russia, which has air and ground forces in Syria after intervening there on Assad’s side in 2015 and turning the tide against mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups.

Trump has until now focused his Syria policy almost exclusively on defeating Islamic State militants in northern Syria, where U.S. special forces are supporting Arab and Kurdish armed groups.

The risks have grown worse since 2013, when Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, considered and then rejected ordering a cruise missile strike in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s loyalists.

Only last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the U.S. diplomatic policy on Syria for now was no longer focused on making Assad leave power, one of Obama’s aims.

But Trump said on Wednesday the gas attack in Idlib province, which sparked outrage around the world, had caused him to think again about Assad.

Speaking just before the strikes were announced, Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned of “negative consequences” if the United States went ahead with military action, saying the blame would be on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise.

A combination image released by the U.S. Department of Defense which they say shows the impact crater associated with April 4, 2017 Chemical Weapons Allegation released after U.S. cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Courtesy U.S.

A combination image released by the U.S. Department of Defense which they say shows the impact crater associated with April 4, 2017 Chemical Weapons Allegation released after U.S. cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017. Courtesy U.S. DoD/Handout via REUTERS

The deployment of military force against Assad marked a major reversal for Trump.

Obama’s set a red line in 2012 against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. When Obama then threatened military action after a 2013 chemical attack, Trump issued a series of tweets opposing the idea, including ,Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.

Obama backtracked on the air strikes, and after the latest attack, Trump was quick to blame his Democratic predecessor for weakness and irresolution that emboldened Assad.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Yara Bayoumy, Jonathan Landay, John Walcott, Idrees Ali, David Brunstromm and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Peter Cooney)

Bunkers and booby-traps as Islamic State makes a stand in Libya

Fighters of Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government gather at the eastern frontline of fighting with Islamic State militants, in Sirte, Libya

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) – Sheltering in tunnels, improvised bunkers and rooms fortified by sand-filled fridges, Islamic State is holding out in the Libyan city of Sirte, defending itself with snipers, booby-traps and car bombs against pro-government forces.

After a six-month campaign of often fierce street fighting, Islamic State militants are surrounded in a district less than one-kilometer square, after hundreds of U.S. air strikes that began in August in support of Libyan forces.

The battle for Sirte, taken by Islamic State more than a year ago, may be over soon. But how the militants managed to survive may give insight into the kind of tactics they could use to defend other cities.

The fall of Sirte would mean the loss of the militant organization’s main stronghold outside Iraq and Syria just as a U.S.-led alliance supports Iraqi forces moving to retake the city of Mosul, its main base in Iraq.

Sirte fell to Islamic State as the militants profited from infighting among Libyan factions to gain territory, steadily taking the city and imposing their hardline vision on Muammar Gaddafi’s former home town.

A U.N.-backed government is now in Tripoli trying to unite Libya’s competing factions of armed brigades who once battled together to oust Gaddafi in 2011, but have since turned against one another.

Six months ago, powerful brigades from the nearby city of Misrata began a campaign to flush the militants out of Sirte, which posed a direct threat to their city.

In the early days of the battle, Misrata forces suffered heavy casualties from snipers. More than 500 Misrata fighters have been killed, many by gunshots as they pushed in from the city outskirts.

Fighting has ebbed and flowed along with casualties as Misrata forces slowly encircled the last districts under Islamic State control, leading militants to change to more hit-and-run tactics, car bombs and explosive devices.

Some Misrata commanders said progress had been slowed by snipers and explosive devices left behind, but also by a lack of weapons and hospital facilities, especially when heavy fighting led to casualties in double digits.

But U.S. air strikes since August have targeted car bombs and militant firing positions, allowing progress. Western special forces teams are advising on the ground as well as providing forward air controllers who guide air strikes.

“Each round of fighting has its own circumstances … and it’s difficult to predict when the battle will be over. But the end of Daesh will be very soon,” said Mohammad Ghasri, a spokesman for pro-government forces, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.

DIGGING IN

With Misrata forces closing around the city center midway through the campaign, militants at first appeared to be holed up in the Ouagadougou conference hall, a central complex once used by Gaddafi for African summits.

As U.S. air strikes intensified, militants pulled back into dense residential neighborhoods as the battle destroyed much of the city. But it has been a fighting withdrawal, taking a toll on Libyan forces.

At the end of August, 35 Misrata brigade fighters were killed as their forces moved forward several hundred meters among emptied residential blocks in neighborhood Number One, near the sea front.

Now with less than one square kilometer under their control, militants have the sea front on one side and Misrata forces all around them, controlling high ground over part of the 600 district and the Ghiza Bahriya area, witnesses said.

Abandoned houses have revealed some of their defenses: Household fridges packed with earth act as reinforcements, and bunkers dug under foundations offer protection from air strikes.

Last week, Misrata forces found improvised tunnels and a makeshift field hospital. A Reuters witness said that in one house graffiti on the walls indicated a quick escape route for the next fighter to use that hideout.

Improvised bombs made from fragmentation grenades and rocket shells are common traps. Garages often contain unexploded car bombs, a Reuters reporter on the ground said. Suicide belts are sometimes left behind by fleeing fighters.

Misrata forces have also been increasingly using tanks and heavily armored vehicles to approach buildings, blasting a way ahead before brigade fighters, some often in flip flops and jeans, make their way in to clear them.

On Thursday, five foreign captives – two Turks, two Indians and a Bangladeshi – were freed after fighting that killed 20 Islamic State militants. Losing captives may be a sign of the group coming under more pressure. But it also makes Misrata forces cautious.

“Sometimes the battle takes a long time because we face unexpected situations like civilians being detained,” Rida Issa, another spokesman said. “The battle is now in residential areas and that means tough, street-by-street fighting.”

How many militants are left in Sirte is unclear. At the start of the campaign, some estimates said as few as 600 fighters remained. Some commanders and militants may have already fled before Sirte was encircled, Misrata officials say.

That has raised the risk of guerrilla attacks. Already a suicide bomber has hit a field hospital outside the city. This week more roadside bombs were found near a field hospital and a helicopter landing area 5 km (3 miles) outside Sirte, witnesses said.

(Reporting by Ismail Zitouni and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Giles Elgood)