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Iraq forces advance in west Mosul
By Mostafa Abulezz with Ammar Karim in Baghdad
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) May 9, 2017

Seven anti-graft activists briefly abducted in Baghdad
Baghdad (AFP) May 9, 2017 - Seven young Iraqi anti-corruption activists were released Tuesday, a day after being kidnapped by armed men in central Baghdad, the interior ministry said.

"The seven young men returned to their families unharmed after sustained efforts by the interior minister and a special team managed to secure their release," ministry adviser Wahab al-Taee said in a statement.

He did not elaborate on the identity of the kidnappers nor the circumstances of their release, which also took place in central Baghdad, close to where they were abducted less than 48 hours earlier.

The interior ministry had confirmed their kidnapping earlier on Tuesday.

"Unidentified gunmen in SUVs abducted seven university students early Monday morning," a ministry official had told AFP.

Jassem al-Helfi, a leading figure of the anti-graft demonstrations that have been taking place almost weekly for around two years, said the seven were abducted at 1:30 am (2230 GMT Sunday).

"An armed gang kidnapped seven students who are active in peaceful protests from their apartment in Battaween," he said.

Helfi later Tuesday confirmed the group's release but did not provide further details on the incident.

The students' profile and the kidnappers' modus operandi however suggest that the motivations were political.

"These young people stood up against corruption and the system of sectarian quotas in politics and in favour of a technocratic government," Helfi said.

He saw the kidnapping as "an attack on freedom of expression and a move aimed at instilling fear in the population and snuffing out the protest movement."

"But this is a national cause and it will not be silenced... Such acts will only increase the determination of the demonstrators," he said.

Almost every week, thousands of protesters have gathered in Baghdad, usually a few blocks from where the kidnapping took place, and across cities in southern Iraq for anti-corruption rallies.

Supporters of the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr form the bulk of the protesters but the movement also includes prominent artists as well as activists affiliated to the communist party, among others.

Their main demands are for tougher measures against corruption, reform of the electoral law and a new government run by technocrats instead of political party leaders and their cronies, whom they blame for much of the country's woes.

Iraqi forces are making swift progress in west Mosul, officers said Tuesday, retaking several neighbourhoods on their way to a final showdown with jihadists in the Old City.

With Iraq's biggest military operation in years set to enter its eighth month in a week, the Islamic State group was only holding on to a handful of neighbourhoods in west Mosul.

Forces from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service "liberated the Northern Industrial Area on the western side," said the Joint Operations Command coordinating the war against IS in Iraq.

The JOC said the forces "raised the Iraqi flag after inflicting losses to the enemy."

It added that another, small neighbourhood called 30 Tammuz had also been retaken on Tuesday.

On Monday, Iraqi forces retook full control of Al-Haramat, a large neighbourhood on the edge of the city, according to several senior military officers.

The gains are part of a new push which Iraqi forces launched last week in northwestern Mosul and has already wrested back several neighbourhoods from the jihadists.

The latest operations make it harder than ever to flee for the few hundred IS fighters estimated to remain in Mosul.

- Trapped civilians -

The jihadists who have been defending their last major bastion in the country for more than six months have offered limited resistance in recent days, apparently regrouping in the Old City for a last stand.

IS only controls a handful of neighbourhoods around the Old City, where at least 250,000 civilians are still trapped and living in dire conditions, according to aid officials and rights groups.

The narrow streets of the Old City, one of the heritage jewels of Iraq, will make it difficult for federal forces to take on the jihadists, who have had three years to set up their defences.

Elite forces might have to undertake dismounted raids, which could take a heavy human toll on units that have been fighting IS for more than two years uninterrupted.

The presence of a large civilian population, which either chose not to leave or was prevented from doing so by IS, also complicates any final assault to seal victory in Mosul.

Iraqi forces launched a major offensive on October 17 to retake Mosul, which IS seized in June 2014. They secured the eastern side of the city, which is divided by the Tigris river, in January.

The United Nations says 434,000 people fled their homes in west Mosul, since a fresh push was launched there on February 19.

The influx of displaced people is compounding one of the world's biggest humanitarian crises, for which the aid community has warned a funding effort was required.

- Relentless displacement -

The UN on Tuesday announced it had opened a new camp east of Mosul as it seeks to provide assistance to the steady flow of displaced who will soon have to cope with Iraq's scorching summer temperatures.

"Despite the enormous risks, the number of people fleeing West Mosul shows no sign of slowing down," said the UN refugee agency's Iraq representative, Bruno Geddo.

"We still fear more large outflows of people from the west of the city, which is why UNHCR and partners continue to prepare new camps ready to receive those fleeing Mosul, who are desperately in need of assistance," he said in a statement.

Baghdadi, who made his only public appearance at a mosque in the old city of Mosul in July 2014, has urged his men to fight to the death to defend what was the de facto Iraqi capital of his now crumbling "caliphate".

IS still holds the towns of Tal Afar and Hawijah, as well as pockets of territory elsewhere in Iraq, including in remote desert areas near the borders with Jordan and Syria.

According to the Iraqi authorities, IS now controls less than seven percent of Iraq, down from more than a third in 2014.

Anti-corruption activists kidnapped in Baghdad; West Mosul battles on
Baghdad (AFP) May 9, 2017
Armed men have kidnapped seven young Iraqi anti-corruption activists in central Baghdad, security sources and a civil society leader said Tuesday. "Unidentified gunmen in SUVs abducted seven university students early Monday morning," an interior ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity. He said the fate of the seven, who were snatched from the Battaween area, was unknown. ... read more

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Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century

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