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Iraqi forces take third of west Mosul, jihadists 'trapped'
By Tony Gamal-Gabriel with W.G. Dunlop in Baghdad
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 12, 2017

IS fighters 'trapped' in Mosul after last road cut
Baghdad (AFP) March 12, 2017 - Iraqi forces battling to retake Mosul have cut the last road out of the city, trapping Islamic State group fighters inside, the US envoy to the anti-IS coalition said Sunday.

They recaptured east Mosul earlier this year, and are now battling to retake its western side from the jihadist group, which seized the country's second city along with swathes of other territory in 2014.

But IS has seen a stark reversal of its fortunes since then.

IS "is trapped. Just last night, the 9th Iraqi army division, up near Badush, just northwest of Mosul, cut off the last road out of Mosul," Brett McGurk told journalists in Baghdad.

Iraqi soldiers and pro-government paramilitaries are fighting IS west of Mosul, while two special forces units and the federal police battle the jihadists inside it.

"Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they're going to die there, because they're trapped. So we are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape," McGurk said.

In practice, IS fighters may still be able to sneak in and out of the city in small numbers, but the lack of access to roads makes larger-scale movement and resupply more difficult, if not impossible.

IS has lost "over 60 percent of the territory it once held here in Iraq, and is losing more every day," and is losing fighters faster than it can replace them, McGurk said.

- Nearly 90,000 trained personnel -

"We now believe that we are killing so many of their fighters that they are not able to replace them. That was not the case even a year ago," said McGurk, putting the toll for IS leaders at 180 dead.

In addition to carrying out strikes targeting IS, the US-led coalition has trained nearly 90,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, the US envoy said.

Washington had spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraqi forces prior to its military withdrawal in 2011, but that effort did not translate into long-term competence, with Baghdad's forces performing dismally in the early days of the 2014 IS offensive.

Iraqi forces have since made a major turnaround, dealing IS a string of defeats and launching a massive operation in October to recapture Mosul.

While the noose is tightening around the jihadists still in Mosul, the city's recapture would not spell the end of IS.

It also holds areas in western Iraq as well as across the border in Syria, including Raqa, the only city aside from Mosul in which IS still holds significant territory.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group for Kurdish and Arab fighters, are closing in on Raqa, with McGurk saying that they were some 10 kilometres (six miles) from the city.

"Raqa remains their administrative capital, it's where we think a lot of their leaders are located, it's where we think they are planning a lot of attacks around the world," he said.

Iraqi forces recaptured a third of west Mosul and trapped Islamic State group fighters inside as they made further gains in their battle to retake the city, officials said Sunday.

Fierce fighting has shaken Mosul in recent days as thousands of US-backed Iraqi soldiers and police battle to reclaim the country's second city.

A renewed push against the jihadists launched on March 5 has seen IS forced from several neighbourhoods and key sites, including the main local government headquarters and the famed Mosul museum.

By Sunday, Iraqi forces were tightening the noose.

IS "is trapped. Just last night, the 9th Iraqi army division... cut off the last road out of Mosul," said Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

"Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they're going to die there," he said. "We are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape."

Staff Major General Maan al-Saadi of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service said "more than a third" of west Mosul was now under the control of security forces.

Saadi said CTS forces were battling IS inside Mosul al-Jadida and Al-Aghawat on Sunday, and Iraq's Joint Operations Command said they recaptured the latter area later in the day.

The JOC also said forces from the Rapid Response Division, another special forces unit, and the federal police were also attacking the Bab al-Toub area on the edge of Mosul's Old City.

- Resistance weakening -

"The battle is not easy... we are fighting an irregular enemy who hides among the citizens and uses tactics of booby-trapping, explosions and suicide bombers, and the operation is taking place with precision to preserve the lives of the citizens," said JOC spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool.

IS resistance "has begun to weaken in a big way", he added.

IS seized Mosul in mid-2014 and swept across areas north and west of Baghdad, taking control of swathes of territory and declaring a "caliphate" straddling the border with Syria.

Backed by a US-led air strikes and other support, Iraqi forces have since retaken 60 percent of the territory they lost, said McGurk.

The operation to recapture Mosul -- then the last Iraqi city under IS control -- was launched in October.

After recapturing the east of the city, Iraqi forces last month set their sites on the west, where hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped.

The US-led coalition launched air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and is providing a range of support to allied forces in both countries.

McGurk said IS fighters were thought to be dying faster than the group can replace them, and also said the coalition had trained nearly 90,000 Iraqi security personnel.

In Syria the coalition is backing an Arab-Kurdish alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces that is pushing towards the jihadists' de facto capital Raqa.

"Raqa remains their (IS's) administrative capital, it's where we think a lot of their leaders are located, it's where we think they are planning a lot of attacks around the world," said McGurk.

- Toll rises in Damascus bombings -

On Sunday the SDF fought fierce battles with IS jihadists east of Raqa around Khas Ajil village, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

SDF forces took control of five villages as they continued a slow advance, said the Observatory.

Eight civilians were among 19 people killed in suspected US-led air strikes four kilometres (2.5 miles) south of Raqa, said the monitor.

Turkish-backed rebels are also advancing against IS in northern Syria, as are government troops supported by Russia.

The Observatory also reported fighting in eastern Aleppo province where the jihadists forced regime troops to fall back from the outskirts of the Jarrah military airport.

Russian and Syrian strikes hit IS-held areas in the province, Observatory said, with eight civilians, mostly from the same family, killed in a strike on the village of Maskanah.

Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front said meanwhile it was behind twin bombings targeting Shiite pilgrims in the centre of Damascus that killed 74 people.

"On Saturday... a twin attack was carried out by two heroes of Islam... in the centre of the capital Damascus, killing and wounding dozens," a statement said.

The Observatory said 43 Iraqi pilgrims were among those killed when a roadside bomb detonated as a bus carrying pilgrims made its way through the Ban al-Saghir area of Damascus's famed Old City and a suicide bomber blew himself up.

The attack also killed 11 Syrian civilians and 20 members of pro-government security forces, it said.

Shiite shrines have been a frequent target of attack for Sunni extremists of IS and Al-Qaeda during Syria's devastating six-year war.

Iraq: The battle for Mosul
Baghdad (AFP) March 12, 2017 - Iraqi forces said Sunday they have now seized more than a third of west Mosul after a week of steady gains in the battle to retake the city from jihadists.

Here are key dates in the vast offensive begun last October to retake Mosul from the Islamic State jihadist group:

- The battle begins -

- October 17: Iraqi forces launch the assault. The jihadists had declared an Islamic "caliphate" there in June 2014 after overrunning much of northern and western Iraq.

Tens of thousands of army, police and counter-terrorism troops are thrown into the long-awaited counterattack with air and ground support from a US-led coalition.

Kurdish militias also take part in operations north and east of the city.

By late October, the army is within 15 kilometres (10 miles) of Mosul.

- Entering Mosul -

- November 1: The army says it has entered Mosul city for the first time since 2014.

- November 3: IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi breaks a year-long silence, urging followers to fight to the death for Mosul. The Iraqi advance begins to slow.

- November 13: Iraq says it has recaptured Nimrud, an ancient city southeast of Mosul.

- November 23: Shiite-dominated paramilitary units known as Hashed al-Shaabi say they have cut IS supply lines between Mosul and the jihadists' Syrian stronghold Raqa, 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the west.

- Change of tactics -

- December 29: Government troops end a two-week pause and launch the second part of their assault on east Mosul.

- Tigris River bank -

- January 8: Iraqi units reach the Tigris River that divides Mosul and take up positions near one of the city's five bridges, all now destroyed.

- January 14: Elite Counter-Terrorism Service forces seize Mosul University.

- East Mosul taken -

- January 18: The head of special forces announces the "liberation" of Mosul's east bank, but sporadic fighting continues for several days.

- January 24: The Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight says the east has been "fully liberated".

- Battle for west begins -

- January 24: As Iraqi forces prepare to attack Mosul's west, the UN warns that 750,000 civilians there are at "extreme risk" and a quarter of a million Iraqis could flee their homes.

Western Mosul, home to the densely populated Old City and a traditional jihadist bastion, is expected to offer stiffer resistance than the east.

- February 19: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announces the start of the campaign for western Mosul, with Iraqi forces backed by coalition air power and increased support from coalition advisers.

- February 20: New Pentagon chief James Mattis makes his first visit to Baghdad as Iraqi forces retake Al-Buseif village overlooking the airport and south Mosul.

- February 24: Iraqi forces seize full control of Mosul airport and enter their first west Mosul neighbourhood.

- February 27: They take control of the fourth bridge over the Tigris, the southernmost of the five bridges partly destroyed by air strikes or IS.

- March 7: Government forces take key buildings including the Nineveh province headquarters and Mosul museum.

- March 12: More than a third of the city's western part has now been retaken, a top military official says.

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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