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IRAQ WARS
On Mosul front, Iraqi forces come as civilians go
By Simon VALMARY
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) May 18, 2017


UN says struggling to cope with Mosul exodus
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) May 18, 2017 - The exodus of civilians from the battleground city of Mosul has reached an unprecedented level, leaving aid agencies struggling to cope, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq said on Thursday.

"The numbers of people fleeing their homes in western Mosul are overwhelming," Lise Grande said in a statement.

"We are talking about very large numbers of families who are leaving everything behind. They are fleeing under very difficult circumstances. Many are food insecure and haven't had access to safe drinking water and medicines for weeks or months," she said.

Iraqi forces launched a massive offensive seven months ago to retake the country's second city from the Islamic State group, which seized it in June 2014.

More than 700,000 people have since been displaced, half a million of them since mid-February when Iraqi forces moved on the more densely populated west side of the city.

The government, the UN and its partners have been setting up camps around Mosul to assist increasingly desperate civilians, including some who faced starvation and were used as human shields by jihadists.

But Grande said the aid community was struggling to cope with the latest influx.

"The numbers of people who are moving are now so large, it's becoming more and more difficult to ensure civilians receive the assistance and protection they need," she said.

She warned that another 200,000 civilians who are still trapped in the Old City of Mosul, where holdout jihadists have focused most of their resources ahead of a bloody last stand, could flee in the coming weeks.

Grande urged donors to ramp up support for the Mosul aid effort, which has been massively underfunded so far.

"Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake," she said.

The black Humvee slaloming between car bomb carcasses and mortar craters stops to let fleeing civilians cross and then resumes its tooth-loosening ride down the churned up west Mosul street.

Other vehicles follow -- they are from Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service and are heading to the front line in Rifai, one of the last areas left to retake before a final assault on jihadists holed up in the Old City.

Further down, the street is almost entirely blocked by a berm.

"Look out, it's mined. Go around the sides," the gunner shouts from his turret to a group of civilians dragging their children, lugging chequered plastic shopping bags and pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

As they walk past the armoured vehicle, the civilians crack a smile, flash a victory sign and thank the soldiers before walking on to join the half million other people who have fled the west side of Mosul since February.

The CTS fighters are torn between compassion and suspicion.

Islamic State group jihadists trying to escape certain death sometimes shave off their beards and attempt to blend in with fleeing civilians, whose flow never stops and and federal forces can't always control.

"Yesterday, a woman left a plastic bag in the street as she walked past. When we searched the bag later, we found Daesh (IS) clothes, a handgun and a knife," says one of the soldiers. "Maybe it wasn't a woman."

A few blocks down, CTS units are gearing up for the day's push, the "men in black" strapping themselves up for battle, unloading crates of ammunition and lining up rocket-launchers against a wall.

They don't know how many IS fighters they will face and incoming mortar fire is the only sign of enemy activity.

- Harvesting spent casings -

One unit goes first and enters a property through a hole punched in the compound wall.

Elite forces breaching enemy lines usually take the position but refrain from actually entering homes, which can be booby-trapped. They clamber along from one plot to another, retaking ground one street at a time, one house at a time.

Suddenly, there are no more holes in the walls and the forces have to abandon cover and run across the street, exposed to sniper fire.

As they wait for the green light of the group ahead of them, muffled laughter breaks out as some fighters crack nervous jokes. A ring tone goes off and a soldier fumbles for his mobile: "I'll call you back later."

As they advance through the neighbourhood, civilians who had been hunkering down waiting for their arrival emerge onto the street with their belongings, ready to leave the city.

When families start walking away from their neighbourhood, where the corpses of jihadist fighters are left to bloat in the sun, they often have no idea where they will spend the next night.

Walking the other way is a young man who says he returns to frontline areas every other day with a wheelbarrow that he fills to the rim with spent casings.

"I pick them up and sell them to scrap dealers for about 100 dinars a kilo," he says, which means he has to collect 12 times that amount of casings to make a dollar.

"I live about five kilometres (three miles) from here. I come to the front line to earn a living," he says.

A little girl runs across and empties a bag of casings she collected herself in his wheelbarrow.

Next to her, an older woman, bent down to join the harvest of casings carpeting the street, sighs: "I'm so ashamed of doing this."

IRAQ WARS
Militants kill two Iraqi police in anti-IS stronghold
Habbaniyah, Iraq (AFP) May 15, 2017
Militants killed two police Monday in Haditha in a rare attack inside a town west of Baghdad that tribesmen and security forces successfully defended against repeated jihadist assaults, officials said. When the Islamic State group seized swathes of territory in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq, Haditha was one of the largest Sunni Arab population centres in the country not to fall to the jihadist ... read more

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