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IRAQ WARS
Iraq battles IS in Mosul, commander says resistance weakening
By Tony Gamal-Gabriel
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 10, 2017


Iraq says no sign of IS chemical weapons use in Mosul
United Nations, United States (AFP) March 10, 2017 - Iraq's UN envoy said Friday there was no evidence that the Islamic State group had used chemical weapons in the battle for Mosul.

Ambassador Mohamed Alhakim said he conveyed the information to the United Nations after speaking with his government in Baghdad on Friday.

"There is really no evidence that Daesh has used this chemical weapon," Alhakim told reporters ahead of a Security Council meeting on Iraq. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS).

The Red Cross had reported that seven people, five of them children, had been hospitalized near Mosul in early March suffering from exposure to a chemical agent.

The US Defense Department said that IS militants were developing rudimentary chemical weapons such as mustard gas at the University of Mosul.

Iraqi forces launched an operation to retake west Mosul, the largest population center still held by the jihadists, on February 19.

Alhakim said Iraq had been in contact with The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which could dispatch a team of experts in the event of a suspected toxic gas attack.

Following the closed-door Security Council meeting on Iraq, British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the Iraqi investigation of the alleged chemical attacks had not been completed and that the council had expressed concern.

"We look forward to the results of Iraq's investigation into those allegations," said Rycroft, who holds the council presidency this month.

Iraqi special forces battled the Islamic State group on Friday in west Mosul, where a commander said jihadist resistance is showing signs of weakening under repeated assaults.

The jihadists are also facing simultaneous offensives in Syria by government forces, Turkish-backed rebels and a US-supported alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, piling more pressure on IS.

But the battle for Mosul's Old City -- which could see some of the toughest fighting of the operation -- has not yet begun, nor has fighting inside the city of Raqa, IS's main bastion in Syria.

Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service assaulted the Al-Amil al-Oula neighbourhood of west Mosul early on Friday, and were battling the jihadists inside it, said Staff Major General Maan al-Saadi, a CTS commander.

Saadi said that following a string of losses since the launch of the government's assault on west Mosul on February 19, IS resistance had diminished.

"After we broke the defensive line, they lost many fighters," he said.

"The enemy has begun to collapse. They have lost many of their combat capabilities. Today, the enemy sent (car bombs), but not in the numbers that they sent at the beginning of the battle."

In another sign that the jihadists are feeling the squeeze, their chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reported to have abandoned Mosul, leaving local commanders behind to oversee defence of the city.

Iraqi forces launched their operation to retake Mosul in October, and recaptured the whole east bank of the Tigris River that runs through it in January.

- More than 215,000 displaced -

They then set their sights on the smaller but more densely populated west side of the city.

More than 215,000 people are currently displaced as a result of the battle for Mosul, according to the International Organization for Migration. Others fled their homes but later returned.

Almost a quarter of the displaced -- more than 50,000 people -- have fled west Mosul since February 25, the IOM said.

But that is only a small fraction of the 750,000 civilians estimated to have stayed on in west Mosul under IS rule.

In neighbouring Syria, the jihadists lost more ground to a Russian-backed offensive by government forces east of second city Aleppo.

Russian warplanes and regime aircraft and artillery pounded IS positions around Jarrah airbase, held by the jihadists since January 2014.

The Russian general staff said on Friday that it had carried out more than 450 air strikes in support of the offensive over the past week, killing more than 600 IS fighters, and destroying 16 infantry fighting vehicles and 41 machinegun-mounted pickups.

Washington too has turned up the heat on IS in Syria, more than doubling its troops numbers in the country with the deployment of 400 reinforcements to back the offensive on Raqa.

Some 500 US military advisers were already deployed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that Washington regards as the force best equipped to drive IS from its stronghold.

- Feuding US allies -

But the operation is complicated by the implacable opposition to the SDF of US NATO ally Turkey, which is leading a rival offensive against IS in northern Syria.

Ankara regards the dominant force within the SDF, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), as a terrorist organisation, because of its links to a Kurdish rebel group that has waged a deadly 33-year insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Ankara has said its intervention is aimed as much against the YPG IS, and there have been repeated clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdish militia.

Asked about the standoff at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, the top US commander for the region, General Joseph Votel, acknowledged that tensions between Ankara and the Kurds were near breaking point.

Efforts have been made to address the issue at a military level, "and there has to be an effort at the political level to address this," Votel said.

Some of the US troop reinforcements being sent to Syria are to be deployed to SDF-held areas near the front line to deter further clashes between Turkish forces and Washington's Kurdish-Arab allies.

Relations between Ankara and Moscow, however, are much improved even though they have supported opposite sides in the conflict between the rebels and the regime.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Moscow on Friday for a new round of consultations with President Vladimir Putin.

IRAQ WARS
Iraqi forces advance as US boosts Syria troops
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 9, 2017
Iraqi forces advanced on the Islamic State group in west Mosul on Thursday as the United States nearly doubled its troops to help defeat the jihadists in their Syrian stronghold Raqa. The US-led coalition fighting IS said the United States was deploying another 400 troops against the jihadists in their self-proclaimed capital in Syria, joining 500 already on the ground. "They are tempora ... read more

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