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Southern front lines stalled for weeks in west Mosul

Car bomb attacks have diminished as Iraqi forces are narrowing in on the remaining areas under Islamic State control in the city, but suicide bombers and snipers continue to claim victims among Iraqi forces holding defensive positions.
A member of Iraqi Rapid response forces takes cover during clashes with Islamic State fighters, in north west of Mosul, Iraq, May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui - RTS15T5C

MOSUL, Iraq — Following the fall of the Ma’amil neighborhood in west Mosul to the Iraqi forces May 10, “only 15 neighborhoods remained under control of IS [the Islamic State] in Mosul, all of which are surrounded by the Iraqi forces,” said Bashar al-Kiki, the head of the Ninevah Provincial Council. In order to manage the liberation of the remaining areas, the Iraqi joint forces announced a plan to divide the areas into different parts, each of which has been assigned to specific forces.

In the area of Bab al-Jadid in west Mosul, which is held by the federal police, suicide attackers infiltrated the front line April 28 and one killed a staff colonel in charge of the area before blowing himself up, Col. Mohammad Hussein Salman told Al-Monitor two days later in an interview at the site of the attack.

The officer killed, Staff Col. Khidher Abdulmahdi, left behind several children, including an infant who had been born while he was at the front and whom he had not yet seen, Salman, a deputy brigade commander, said.

“Suicide bombers usually shoot at you and then throw hand grenades, and then they blow themselves up when you try to catch them,” Salman added, stressing that this time the attacker had infiltrated the defense line in the predawn hours and targeted the staff colonel from inside a former shop.

Various body parts of the attackers had been left around the area where they had fallen, while young recruits manned a dirt embankment that cut off access to a main road leading out of the former market nearby. The men were holding their ground, and had no plans to move forward.

One of the officers who spent time with Al-Monitor at the front line, Capt. Haidar Mohamad Abdurrida al-Isawi, was killed by a sniper in the same spot a few days later, on May 4.

Across the market, other federal police were stationed in what was formerly a school, with large photos of little girls with white headscarves wrapped around their heads and skyward visages superimposed on photos of the hajj and the Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Holes had been drilled through the walls for ease of movement, and chunks of the wall remained on the ground, ignored by officers trying not to trip as they rushed across spaces potentially within the sight of snipers.

Through a hole in a wall at the very edge of the territory held by the federal police, a desolate landscape of destroyed buildings and roads cluttered with rubble can be seen. The sound of snipers’ bullets attests to IS’ presence. A few projectiles pass through the forest green sandbags stuffed into a glassless window, making the officers nearby duck and call for heavier weaponry.

Many civilians are still inside the area. They have not been able to leave through the southern sections for several weeks, Salman said, adding that IS “is 50 meters [54 yards] away, at the most.”

At the Hammam al-Alil base about 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Mosul, a photo of the staff colonel killed in Bab Al-Jadid hangs over Lt. Gen. Raed Shaker Jawdat’s desk.

Many Iraqi news channels come to Hammam al-Alil base from Erbil to take live shots against a backdrop of helicopters' coming and going. They the journalists return to their hotels in the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is much closer than Baghdad. A few stay at the base and go out to the front.

Those who have stayed find that the front line in the southern sections has moved extremely little, or not at all, in recent weeks. But the base itself has been targeted by three suicide attacks, Jawdat told Al-Monitor in an interview at his office there.

He added that all of the attackers were foreign fighters but had used members of the local population for reconnaissance and to prepare the attacks.

“We captured all of them,” he said, claiming that his forces were continuing to kill significant IS figures inside Mosul, including a man named Abu Sidra, who he said was involved in the production of chemical weapons.

Jawdat said IS had controlled the local population’s lives, thinking and finances since 2005 — some nine years before the transnational group came to international attention with the dramatic taking of Mosul in June 2014 — and that it would take a long time to change the situation.

He estimated that around 1,200 IS fighters were still inside the city as of May 1 and that most of them were Iraqis. Some sleeper cells are still in the liberated areas, including in Hammam al-Alil, he added.

Jawdat estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 civilians were still in the areas of the city occupied by IS and that it was proving very difficult to get them out.

During a visit by Al-Monitor on April 30 to the Nabi Sheet area, known for a mosque razed by IS just over a month after it took the city, Staff Brig. Gen. Hafez Hless al-Tami, the head of the federal police’s Fifth Division, said the division was tasked with “holding defensive positions while operations are conducted from other axes.”

In a previous visit by Al-Monitor to the area in mid-March, the same streets that were safe one day to traverse were not so the next due to sniper fire. The same situation was seen over a month later.

Tami said civilians had not been able to leave the area for several weeks because of the danger from the crossfire, as snipers in the area are insidious.

Although “they do not hold positions,” he said, they create problems for the forces stationed there by “sneaking up and sometimes taking over buildings that are in view of our units.”

For the moment, the defensive lines seem to be holding, albeit with frequent losses due to snipers and suicide bombers.

Operations by Iraqi forces to retake the city have now switched to the northern axis, and sources on the southern front say that no advances will be made from the southern part of the Old City until more pressure has been put on IS from the other side.

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