Iraq forces advance in Mosul as civilian toll mounts

BAGHDAD/ERBIL: Iraqi forces fought their way into more districts of Mosul but advances in the city’s southeast were being slowed by IS’s use of civilians for cover, military officials said on Tuesday.
The United Nations said civilian casualties had streamed into nearby hospitals in the last two weeks as fighting intensified in the IS group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
Advances by elite forces in the city’s east and northeast have picked up speed in a new push since the turn of the year, and US-backed forces have for the first time reached the Tigris river, which bisects the city.
“They entered Hadba (district) today. There is a battle inside the city,” Lt Colonel Abbas al Azawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi army’s 16th division, said. Seizing control of Hadba, a large district, would likely take more than a day, and IS were deploying suicide bombers, he added.
Recapturing Mosul after more than two years of IS rule would probably spell the end of the Iraqi side of the group’s self-declared caliphate, which spans areas of Iraq and Syria.
Forces in the city’s eastern and northeastern districts, and in particular the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), have made rapid gains in past days.
Better defences against militant car bombs and improved coordination among the advancing troops had helped put IS on the back foot, US and Iraqi military officers said.
“Every day the Iraqi Security Forces go forward and every day the enemy goes backward or underground,” US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the coalition, told reporters in Erbil in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
But fighting in neighbourhoods in the southeast has been tougher.
“The challenge is that they (IS) are hiding among civilian families, that’s why our advances are slow and very cautious,” Lieutenant-Colonel Abdel Amir al Mohammedawi, a spokesman for the rapid response units of Iraq’s federal police, told Reuters.
Mohammedawi said rapid response units and Iraqi army units had fought their way into the Palestine and Sumer districts in the last day, but that IS fighters were firing at civilians trying to flee. “The families, when they see Iraqi forces coming, flee from the areas controlled by Daesh (IS) towards the Iraqi forces, holding up white flags, and Daesh bomb them with mortars and Molotov cocktails, and also shoot at them. “Whenever they (IS) withdraw from a district, they shell it at random, and it’s heavy shelling,” he said.
Col Dorrian said militant fighters were hiding in mosques, schools and hospitals, using civilians as human shields.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said nearly 700 people had been taken to hospitals in cities in Kurdish-controlled areas outside Mosul in the last week, and more than 817 had required hospital treatment a week earlier. — Reuters