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350,000 children trapped in Mosul faced with grim choices as 'most brutal fighting yet' begins

Iraqi forces have launched an offensive against Islamic State in the contested town of Mosul.

Iraq Mosul An Iraqi soldier driving a humvee through Mosul Source: Manu Brabo/AP Photo

IRAQI FORCES LAUNCHED an offensive today on jihadists defending Mosul’s west bank, in what could be the most brutal fighting yet in a four-month-old operation on the country’s second city.

They swiftly retook five villages and set their sights on Mosul airport, which lies just south of the city, marking a new phase in Iraq’s largest military operation in years.

The Islamic State group has put up stiff resistance to defend Mosul, the city where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in 2014.

“Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a short televised speech.

“We announce the start of a new phase in the operation. We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul,” he said, referring to the province of which Mosul is the capital.

A top army commander then announced that forces led by federal police units retook villages south of Mosul, including Athbah, which leaves them within striking distance of the airport.

“We launched our operation at 7:00 am (4am Irish time)… We are heading towards the airport,” said Abbas al-Juburi of the interior ministry’s elite Rapid Response force.

“We destroyed two car bombs and killed several Daesh members,” he told AFP near the front line.

‘Toughest nut’

Military vehicles blared patriotic songs as heavy bombardment and shooting could be heard in the distance.

The jihadists overran Mosul and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in 2014, sweeping aside security forces ill-prepared to face the assault.

The Iraqi government launched the offensive to reconquer Mosul on 17 October, throwing tens of thousands of forces into the long-awaited counter-attack with air and ground support from the US-led coalition.

Iraq Mosul Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against IS declared east Mosul “fully liberated” on 24 January.

But it took Iraq’s most seasoned forces – the elite Counter-Terrorism Service – more than two months to clear the eastern side of Mosul.

After a pause, federal forces now face what was always billed as the toughest nut to crack: Mosul’s west bank, home to the narrow streets of the Old City.

“West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale,” said Patrick Skinner, from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.

Narrow streets

The streets around the historical centre, which includes the mosque in which Baghdadi made his only public appearance in June 2014, will be impassable for many military vehicles and force government fighters to take on IS in perilous dismounted warfare.

Prior to the offensive that saw IS seize Mosul and much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland nearly three years ago, the east bank was more ethnically diverse than the west, where analysts believe the jihadists could enjoy more support.

“IS resistance could be greater in this area and it will be harder, but all the more important, to completely clear the networks from Mosul after its recapture,” said Emily Anagnostos, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Iraq Mosul A man detained at a security checkpoint by Iraqi forces outside Mosul Source: Bram Janssen AP/Press Association Images

While the federal forces’ attrition is said to be high, IS’s had been undoubtedly higher and commanders have said the jihadists may no longer have the resources to defend east Mosul effectively.

Recent incidents in the recaptured east point to the difficulty of ensuring remnants of IS have not blended in with the civilian population in a huge city which most residents did not flee ahead of the government offensive.

Aid organisations had feared an exodus of unprecedented proportions before the start of the Mosul operation but half a million — a significant majority — of residents stayed home.

Trapped civilians

Their continued presence prevented both sides from resorting to deadlier weaponry, which may have slowed down the battle but averted a potentially much more serious humanitarian emergency in the middle of winter as well as more extensive material damage to the city.

“Mosul is going better than we expected, but there are serious dangers ahead,” Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, told AFP.

Residents of west Mosul have reported very difficult living conditions and warned that they were already low on food, with weeks of fighting expected to lie ahead.

Save the Children urged all parties to protect the estimated 350,000 children currently trapped in west Mosul.

Iraq Mosul Source: Manu Brabo AP/Press Association Images

“This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay – or execution and snipers if they try to run,” said the charity’s Iraq director, Maurizio Crivallero.

IS fighters and Mosul residents remained able to move across both sides of the city during much of the fighting in the east but all bridges across the Tigris have now been dropped and the jihadists in the west are all but besieged.

IS has used civilians as human shields as part of its defence tactics and killed residents attempting to flee, making it both difficult and dangerous for the population to escape.

- © AFP, 2017

Read: ‘We have very little food left’: People are burning their own clothes to stay warm in Mosul

Read: Warning of ‘extreme risk’ to citizens as the battle for Mosul rages on

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