Iraqi forces free hundreds of civilians
in Mosul Old City battles
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[June 24, 2017]
By Marius Bosch
MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi forces opened
exit routes for hundreds of civilians to flee the Old City of Mosul on
Saturday as they battled to retake the ancient quarter from Islamic
State militants mounting a last stand in what was the de facto capital
of their "caliphate".
U.S.-trained urban warfare units were channeling their onslaught along
two perpendicular streets that converge in the heart of the Old City,
aiming to isolate the jihadist insurgents in four pockets.
Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory in the northern Iraqi
city in the Muslim Eid holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month
of Ramadan, during the next few days.
Helicopter gunships were assisting the ground thrust, firing at
insurgent emplacements in the Old City, a Reuters correspondent reported
from a location near the front lines.
The government advance was carving out escape corridors for civilians
marooned behind Islamic State lines.
There was a steady trickle of fleeing families on Saturday, some with
injured and malnourished children. "My baby only had bread and water for
the past eight days," one mother said.
At least 100 civilians reached the safety of a government-held area west
of the Old City in one 20-minute period, tired, scared and hungry.
Soldiers gave them food and water.
More than 100,000 civilians, of whom half are believed to be children,
remain trapped in the crumbling old houses of the Old City, with little
food, water or medical treatment.
The urban-warfare forces were leading the campaign to clear the Sunni
Islamist militants from the maze of Old City alleyways, moving on foot
house-to-house in locations too cramped for the use of armored combat
Aid organizations and Iraqi authorities say Islamic State is trying to
prevent civilians from leaving so as to use them as human shields.
Hundreds of civilians fleeing the Old City have been killed in the past
A U.S.-led international coalition is providing ground and air support
in the eight-month-old campaign to seize Mosul, the largest city the
militants came to control in a shock offensive in Iraq and neighboring
Syria three years ago.
U.S.-supported Iraqi government offensives have wrested back several
important urban centers in the country's west and north from Islamic
State over the past 18 months.
HISTORIC MOSQUE BLOWN UP BY MILITANTS
Military analysts said Baghdad's campaign to recover Mosul gathered pace
after Islamic State blew up the 850-year-old al-Nuri mosque with its
famous leaning minaret on Wednesday.
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Displaced civilians from Mosul's Old City, the last district in the
hands of Islamic State militants, flee during fighting between Iraqi
forces and Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq June 24,
2017. REUTERS/Marius Bosch
The mosque's destruction, while condemned by Iraqi and U.N.
authorities as another cultural crime by the jihadists, gave troops
more freedom to press their onslaught as they no longer had to worry
about damaging the ancient site.
It was from the mosque that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi announced himself to the world for the first time as the
"caliph", or ruler of all Muslims, on July 4, 2014. Mosul's
population at the time was more than 2 million.
Baghdadi fled into the desert expanse extending across Iraq and
Syria in the early phase of the Mosul offensive, leaving the
fighting there to local IS commanders, according to U.S. and Iraqi
officials. Recent Russian reports that he was killed have not been
confirmed by the coalition or Iraqi authorities.
The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016,
but the campaign dragged on as IS reinforced positions in inner-city
neighborhoods of the city's western half, carried out suicide car
and motorbike bomb attacks, laid booby traps and kept up barrages of
sniper and mortar fire.
By this weekend, the area still under IS control was less than 2
square km (0.77 sq miles) in extent, skirting the western bank of
the Tigris River that bisects Mosul.
Islamic State retaliated for government advances on Friday evening
with a triple bombing in a neighborhood in eastern Mosul, which
Baghdad's forces recaptured in January.
The attack was carried out by three people who detonated explosive
belts, killing five, including three policemen, and wounding 19,
according to a military statement on Saturday.
The fall of Mosul would mark the end of the Iraqi half of Islamic
State's "caliphate" as a quasi-state structure, but IS would still
hold sizeable, mainly rural and small-town tracts of both Iraq and
In eastern Syria, Islamic State's so-called capital, Raqqa, is now
nearly encircled by a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition.
(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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