Iraq forces hunt for remaining IS fighters in west Mosul
MOSUL - Iraqi forces worked to clear bombs and flush out any remaining jihadist fighters in recaptured areas of west Mosul Wednesday to set the stage for an offensive against the Old City.
Supported by US-led coalition air strikes, Iraqi forces have made steady progress in their battle to retake Mosul, Iraq's second city and the largest that was seized by the Islamic State group.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed that he would "not hesitate" to strike jihadists in neighbouring countries as well if they posed a threat, after Baghdad carried out air raids in Syria last month.
"I will not hesitate to strike terrorist sites in neighbouring countries, if they threaten the security of Iraq," Abadi said in a speech in north Iraq, footage of which was posted online.
Abadi announced Iraqi strikes against IS near the border in Syria that were believed to be the first of their kind by Baghdad's forces.
Iraqi forces have recaptured a series of neighbourhoods in Mosul as well as the provincial government headquarters and the museum where IS militants infamously filmed themselves destroying priceless artefacts.
The jihadists are under mounting pressure from twin US-backed ground offensives targeting Mosul and their other main stronghold, Raqa in Syria.
IS overran large areas of both countries in 2014, declaring a cross-border "caliphate" in territory it controlled, but has since lost ground.
Iraqi forces launched the massive operation to retake Mosul on October 17, first recapturing its eastern side before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west.
The jihadists have fought back with suicide car bombs, roadside bombs, snipers and weaponised drones.
The focus on Wednesday was on clearing the newly retaken areas and defusing bombs in booby-trapped houses, Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi of the elite Rapid Response Division told AFP.
- 'Important step' -
The battle for the Old City may see some of the toughest fighting of the operation to retake west Mosul.
"The liberation of the city centre is a first and very important step for beginning the liberation of the Old City," Mohammedawi said, referring to an area near the old city that Iraqi forces have recaptured in recent days.
"The Old City is a very difficult area" of narrow streets and closely spaced houses, he said.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under jihadist rule in the Old City, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance as IS leader and proclaimed a "caliphate" in July 2014.
The fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 51,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration.
But 750,000 people are believed to have remained in west Mosul under IS, whose fighters have used civilians as human shields to defend themselves from approaching forces.
"We couldn't go outside because of the IS fighters," said Manhal, a 28-year-old resident of Al-Danadan, a district now under Iraqi control.
"Those who went out were taken hostage. The fighting was very violent. Mortar rounds fell on our roof and inside our yard," he added.
Security forces launched a major operation to retake west Mosul on February 19, but several days of bad weather slowed their pace until a renewed push began on Sunday.
Federal police commander Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat said anti-IS forces were now setting up defences in recaptured areas as they eyed the next phase.
"Berms and barriers were set up to protect (the) forces and they began search operations in Al-Dawasa and Al-Danadan and Al-Agaidat areas to find (IS) remnants to prepare for the completion of offensive operations," he said.
In Syria, IS has faced offensives by three rival forces.
Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies have pushed south from the Turkish border and driven IS out of the northern town of Al-Bab.
Syrian government troops have swept eastwards from second city Aleppo with Russian support and seized a swathe of countryside from the jihadists.
And a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has been advancing on Raqa.
On Monday they reached the Euphrates River cutting the main road to the partly IS-held city of Deir Ezzor downstream.