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Fierce fighting on outskirts of Mosul Old City
By W.G. Dunlop and Tony Gamal-Gabriel with Edouard Guihaire in Baghdad
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 19, 2017

Mosul families go against the tide to return home
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 19, 2017 - Tens of thousands have flowed out of war-wracked Mosul in recent weeks, but Samir Hamid and 33 family members have decided to go against the tide to return home.

"We stayed with relatives for a week and now we're going back home," says the father-of-five, who has travelled with his extended family from a small town outside Mosul.

Iraqi forces have retaken several neighbourhoods in west Mosul from the Islamic State group since starting an assault last month to recapture the jihadists' last major urban bastion in the country.

More than 150,000 people have fled their homes in west Mosul, the Iraqi authorities say, of which two-thirds have found shelter in camps near the city where they receive food, blankets and foam mattresses.

But Hamid says he, his five brothers and their families -- 34 people in total -- are heading home to the Wadi Hajar district after finding there was no space for them in a displaced camp in the Hamam al-Alil area.

"We couldn't find any room at the camp," says the man in his thirties.

"There are too many people there -- three to four families per tent," says Hamid, dressed entirely in black and his plastic sandals covered in mud.

- Biscuits, milk and butter -

As they approach a hill to climb on the city outskirts, Hamid's family grab small metal carts abandoned by civilians who have fled the city in the opposite direction.

They pile on their bags crammed with belongings.

A woman in the family, her face covered with a black face veil, struggles to advance under the weight of a dirty beige blanket she carries. She lifts the veil from her face.

"We'll be better off at home," says Hamid, who has brought biscuits, milk and butter in his bags.

When Hamid and his family fled Mosul, they escaped what they described as a living hell.

"We hung between life and death. There was nothing to eat, nothing to drink. When we fell asleep, I'd look at my children and wonder which one would die or be wounded," says Hamid.

His eldest son stands behind him, a beany hat pulled over his head. He is 12 years old, but looks half his age.

"We're going back because we were told the situation was much better, that there wasn't any more fighting," Hamid says.

Like him, many other Mosul residents dream of returning to a normal life.

- 'Only source of income' -

In the Al-Jawsak neighbourhood, residents have draped white flags at the entrance of small houses on the edge of streets strewn with rubble.

Luay Adnan, 34, reopened the family's corner shop four days ago.

"I was at home with nowhere else to go. This shop is our only source of income," he says in the dark interior of his store.

The bullet-ridden white shutters are closed, and the front window has been shattered to shards in the fighting.

"I opened up to allow people to shop, so that life can return to normal," he says.

But many of his shelves are empty. On just a few, he has laid out items freshly ferried in from Hamam al-Alil: tomato sauce, dried vermicelli, bulghur wheat, white beans, oil, eggs and tea.

"There's so much missing. The shop's empty. We don't have any chicken, meat or mobile phone top-up cards," says Adnan, who wears a cap on his salt-and-pepper hair.

Ahmad, a neighbour in his forties with a greying beard, drops in to buy some mineral water, eggs and potatoes.

Before IS overran Mosul in 2014, "the shop was full. You could find whatever you wanted," says the customer, wearing a grey-coloured traditional long robe.

His 13-year-old son Mohammed waits timidly by his side, a white bandage stretched around his forehead, where he has been wounded by shelling.

Iraqi forces backed by helicopter strikes engaged in heavy fighting with jihadists on the outskirts of the Old City on Sunday as they pressed their offensive to recapture west Mosul.

The elite Rapid Response Force and Iraqi federal police attacked the Islamic State group militants with rifles, machineguns, mortar rounds and rockets a month after the west Mosul operation began.

The joint forces were around 100 metres (yards) south of Mosul's Iron Bridge, which has been destroyed along with other bridges spanning the Tigris River that linked the city's eastern and western sides.

Helicopters hosed IS with bullets and fired volleys of rockets in strikes aided by weather that was clearer than it had been for days, AFP correspondents said.

"The aim of the battle is to go past Al-Hadidi (Iron) Bridge northwards," Brigadier General Abbas al-Juburi of the Rapid Response units told AFP.

He said the operation was complicated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians believed to have stayed on under jihadist rule.

"The difficulties are the presence of families, how to avoid opening fire on families who are used as human shields" by the jihadists, Juburi said.

"It is an ancient neighbourhood with old houses. We rarely use heavy weapons" in such conditions, he said.

The battle for the densely populated Old City, with its warrens of alleyways, was always expected to be the toughest of the campaign to retake Mosul from IS.

Iraqi authorities launched the offensive to retake the city on October 17 last year, with the support of the US-led coalition that has been carrying out strikes against IS in Iraq and neighbouring Syria since 2014.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi left for Washington on Sunday for talks with US President Donald Trump and will also attend a ministerial meeting on Wednesday of the 68-nation coalition line-up against IS.

- Mosque strategic target -

In January, Iraqi forces retook the eastern sector of the city before setting their sights on the west.

At the heart of the Old City lies the Al-Nuri Mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014 proclaimed the IS "caliphate" in jihadist-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.

It was Baghdadi's first public appearance, and the capture of the mosque would be highly symbolic and strategic for Iraqi forces who have in recent days taken several key IS positions.

On Saturday, elite forces battled house by house in the Old City as they tried to inch towards the mosque, but were slowed by bad weather and the complicated effort of navigating the narrow streets.

"Our forces are 800 metres (yards) from the mosque," Captain Firas al-Zuwaidi, the spokesman for Rapid Response, said on Saturday.

"The fighting is street by street, house by house," he said to the sound of mortar fire from the heart of Iraq's second city.

The Rapid Response Force is backed up by federal police who have made steady gains since Friday, taking several sites including the Al-Arbiaa market and a grain silo overlooking the Old City.

Retaking Iraq's second city would be a major blow to IS following months of jihadist losses in both Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi authorities say more than 150,000 people have fled their homes in west Mosul, with two-thirds finding shelter in camps near the city.

On Saturday, father of five Samir Hamid and 33 family members displaced by the fighting returned home to the Wadi Hajar district recaptured by Iraqi forces, saying the camps were too crowded.

"We'll be better off at home," he told AFP. "We're going back because we were told the situation was much better, that there wasn't any more fighting."

On Sunday, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said it has deployed "the first mobile delivery unit" inside west Mosul "to meet the lifesaving needs of primary health care for women and girls".

Iraq premier visits US as forces press anti-IS assault Lutte contre l'EI: le Premier ministre irakien s'envole pour Washington
Baghdad (AFP) March 19, 2017 - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi left for Washington on Sunday to meet President Donald Trump as his forces press an assault to recapture west Mosul from the Islamic State jihadist group.

The premier's office said Abadi would also meet Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, without giving specific dates.

On Wednesday, the prime minister is to take part in a ministerial meeting of the 68-nation coalition lined up against the Islamic State group.

Iraqi authorities in October launched an offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul from IS with the support of US-led coalition air strikes.

They retook the east side of Mosul in January before setting their sights on the more densely-populated west of the city, the last major urban centre held by IS in Iraq.

The Iraqi government earlier this month welcomed its nationals' exemption from a revised travel ban drawn up by Trump as an "important step" that strengthens ties between Baghdad and Washington.

Iraq forces say near Mosul mosque where IS declared 'caliphate'
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 18, 2017
Elite Iraqi forces said they were battling house by house in the Old City of Mosul on Saturday, inching towards the mosque where the Islamic State group proclaimed its "caliphate" in 2014. Iraq began an operation on February 19 to retake west Mosul, which is the last major Islamic State group urban bastion in the country and includes the Old City. Commanders said that progress in the den ... read more

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