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Iraq forces say near Mosul mosque where IS declared 'caliphate'
By Tony Gamal-Gabriel with Edouard Guihaire in Baghdad
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 18, 2017

Death carts carry family ripped apart by Mosul campaign
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 18, 2017 - As a convoy of wooden carts descends a hill outside Iraq's war-torn second city of Mosul, a child's foot, greyed with dust, pokes out from under brightly coloured blankets.

Ziad Khalaf says an air strike earlier this week targeting Islamic State group fighters in west Mosul killed 21 members of his family.

"They were pulled from the rubble. Twenty-one bodies, women and children. Even a baby of just six months," he says.

"I hadn't seen them in 20 days."

The rickety carts crawl along the muddy road under a leaden sky.

More feet protrude from under red, green, blue and pink blankets. Some are bare and dusty, others wear socks. A deep wound splits a little girl's face from cheek to ear.

Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition are pressing a vast offensive to seize Iraq's second city from IS, whose members have used civilians as human shields to slow approaching forces.

When Iraqi fighters entered Khalaf's Wadi Hajar neighbourhood in the city's southwest, he was able to hide as IS withdrew.

His relatives were not so lucky. They were forced to join the jihadists as they retreated towards a nearby railway station which Iraqi forces captured Tuesday.

"They were human shields for the jihadists," says Khalaf, a man in his thirties with greying hair. "A plane came. There was a strike."

"I've lost my two brothers, my nephew, my cousins... a whole family -- 21 people," he says.

"When we went to retrieve the bodies, the jihadists fired mortars at us. We couldn't get them out until the Iraqi security forces arrived," Khalaf says.

It could not be independently confirmed that the raid had taken place or whether it was carried out by Iraqi or coalition aircraft.

- 'Dead inside' -

The six old carts draw to a halt and line up side by side in a muddy field. Some men burst into tears, others scream in despair.

"It was a very violent strike. Two houses were reduced to dust," says Shehab Ahmad.

He cries as he kisses a little girl with light brown hair who was lying on one of the carts. He sits head in hands, his face lowered to the ground.

His wife and their son Ahmad, three and a half years old, were killed in the raid. He and his three young daughters survived.

A man with thick black hair and wrinkles around his eyes, he was in a third building that was spared.

"I feel dead inside," he says, tapping a hand on his chest.

Among the carts, Rayan Khalaf huddles in the arms of a relative. He cannot hold back his tears as he blurts out incomprehensible remarks.

He rises and kisses the bodies one by one.

"Where's Younes? Here's Younes. A kiss from your mother, a kiss from your grandmother," he says.

An imposing flat-backed military truck arrives. Black and beige body bags are retrieved from an ambulance and one by one, the bodies are wrapped.

"This is my brother," Rayan Khalaf says, struggling to carry a body in his arms. He refuses to be helped.

"This is Younes," Ziad Khalaf tells his father.

The old man stands by his side, a grey coat over his black gown and a traditional kuffiyeh scarf on his head, holding a thick pile of green ID cards.

He leafs through each one carefully before placing it on a body.

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 densely populated warren of alleyways was slow, but that government forces had made new gains from IS in the ancient central district.

"Our forces are 800 metres (yards) from the mosque," said Captain Firas al-Zuwaidi, spokesman for the interior ministry's elite Rapid Response Force.

He was referring to the Al-Nuri Mosque, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the cross-border "caliphate" spanning jihadist-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria in his sole public appearance in July 2014.

"We are encountering difficulties -- bad weather and streets too narrow for our military vehicles which cannot enter," Zuwaidi said.

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

The battle for the Old City was always expected to be the toughest of the campaign to retake Mosul from IS, further complicated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians believed to have stayed on under jihadist rule.

- 'Hump of western operations' -

Iraqi forces in January retook the east of the city, which is divided by the Tigris River, before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west bank.

The Old City lies at the heart of west Mosul.

Emily Anagnostos, an analyst from the Institute for the Study of War think tank, said the current phase of the operation was a delicate one.

"This stage is the hump of western operations that the ISF (Iraqi security forces) needs to get over without incurring significant ISF or civilian casualties," she said.

"ISIS resistance is tough in this area, the streets are too narrow for large vehicles, and the weather is poor. ISIS is exploiting these factors as part of their defence," Anagnostos said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

The Rapid Response Force is being backed up by the federal police who have made steady gains in recent days.

They have now taken the Al-Arbiaa market and a grain silo overlooking the Old City, federal police commander Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat said on Saturday.

That came after Jawdat announced the capture of the Al-Basha Mosque and the Bab al-Saray market on Friday.

"The federal police and the Rapid Response Force led a surprise attack and besieged Daesh cells in the Old City, killing 13 of them with grenades," Jawdat said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

- Civilians evacuated -

Iraqi forces had already taken a string of key targets in west Mosul, including the airport, the train station, Mosul Museum and the provincial government headquarters.

The fall of Mosul, Iraq's second city, would be a major setback for IS following months of losses in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Iraqi authorities launched the fight to retake Mosul from the jihadists on October 17 last year, with the support of the US-led coalition that launched strikes against IS in Iraq and neighbouring Syria in 2014.

Jawdat said Saturday the federal police had evacuated civilians in the vicinity of the Old City.

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.

The United Nations has warned that the exodus of tens of thousands of west Mosul residents could overwhelm aid groups trying to help them.

Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, has said that any increase in the pace of the exodus could stretch aid groups "to the breaking point".

Iraq commander announces gains in Mosul Old City
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 17, 2017
A commander said Friday that Iraqi forces have gained ground from jihadists inside the Old City of Mosul, an area that could see some of the toughest fighting of the battle for the northern metropolis. Iraqi forces launched an operation on February 19 to retake the west side of Mosul - the most populous area still held by the Islamic State group - and have retaken several neighbourhoods. ... read more

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