IS strikes back to slow Iraqi forces in Mosul

BAGHDAD/BARTELLA, Iraq: IS militants retreating in the face of a seven-week Iraqi military assault on their Mosul stronghold have hit back in the last two days, exploiting cloudy skies which hampered US-led air support and highlighting the fragile army gains.
In a series of counter-attacks since Friday night, the militant fighters struck elite Iraqi troops spearheading the offensive in eastern Mosul, and attacked security forces to the south and west of the city.
On Sunday, two militants tried to attack army barracks in the western province of Anbar. Police and army sources said the attackers were killed before they reached the base.
Iraqi officials say they continue to gain ground against the militants who still hold about three-quarters of the country’s largest northern city which is IS’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
One military source said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived. “We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said.
But the fierce resistance means the military’s campaign is likely to stretch well into next year as it seeks to recapture a city where the militants are dug in among civilians and using a network of tunnels to launch waves of attacks.
This has prompted fears among residents and aid groups of a winter food, water and fuel supply crisis for the million residents still in IS-held areas of the city, and calls to speed up operations.
“Daesh (IS) still controls our neighbourhood, and the Iraqi forces have not taken a single step forward in three weeks. We’re in despair,” said a resident in Mosul’s southeastern district of Intisar, where the army’s Ninth Armoured Division has struggled to make gains.
“My family and I have been sleeping under the concrete stairs in our house for a month now, afraid of the random bombardment between the Iraqi forces and the Daesh elements,” he said by telephone.
The capture of Mosul, the largest city under control of IS in both Iraq and Syria, is seen as crucial towards dismantling the caliphate which the militants declared over parts of the two countries in 2014.
Some 100,000 Iraqi government troops, Kurdish security forces and militiamen are participating in the assault on Mosul that began on October 17, with air and ground support from a US-led international military coalition.
A Reuters reporter in Bartella, about 10 km east of Mosul, saw tanks and army trucks heading towards the city on Sunday. Mud caused by recent rains was hindering movement and there was less artillery fire than in recent days.
“For the past two days there was almost no fighting,” said a man who gave his name as Suleiman, who had fled Mosul.
A spokesman for the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) who have been leading the Iraqi army advance in Mosul denied any let-up in the overall campaign.
“The operation is continuing on all fronts — there’s no halt on any front,” spokesman Sabah al Numani told Iraqi television. Iraqi commanders say they have killed at least 1,000 IS fighters. A government adviser estimated the militant group now had about 4,000 fighters in Mosul. The military has not given figures for its own casualties. The United Nations said last week nearly 2,000 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed across Iraq in November — a figure which Iraq says was based on unverified reports. — Reuters