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Iraqi special forces said they pushed deeper into Mosul on Friday despite heavy resistance from Islamic State militants using civilians as cover, and were holding half a dozen city neighbourhoods seized in the last 10 days.
The elite Counter Terrorism Service troops broke through Islamic State group defence lines to enter the city early last week and have since been embroiled in a brutal, close-quarter combat with waves of suicide bombers and snipers.
The special forces are the spearhead of a wider coalition of 100,000 fighters seeking to crush a few thousand Islamic State jihadists who have ruled Mosul, the biggest city of their cross-border “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, for the last two years.
The campaign, nearly four weeks old, is the most complex military operation in Iraq in the 13 years of turmoil since the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Security forces and army infantry divisions, backed by a U.S.-led air force, are preparing to move on southern and northern districts of Mosul in coming days, to step up pressure on the militants.
Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite paramilitary forces are holding territory to the northeast and to the west.
On the eastern front, special forces pushed into the Qadisiya al-Thaniya district, on the northern edge of the small pocket of neighbourhoods they control so far, Sabah al-Numani, spokesman for the Counter Terrorism Service, told Reuters.
“We have encountered heavy resistance from the enemy,” he said, describing what he called “obstructive patrols” of militant forces trying to hold up the advance.
“We are facing the most difficult form of urban warfare, fighting with the presence of civilians, but our forces are trained for this sort of combat.”
Military officers have told Reuters that the fighting is some of the most lethal they have seen, with small groups of militants using a vast network of tunnels and narrow streets to launch an apparently endless sequence of attacks against troops.
A Reuters correspondent in Kokjali, on the eastern edge of the city, saw U.S. Apache helicopters overhead. Explosions, either from air strikes or suicide car bombs which the jihadists have deployed in the hundreds since the campaign started on Oct. 17, could be heard against a backdrop of artillery fire.
As smoke rose above the city, hundreds of civilians were on the streets of Kokjali, some of them local residents but others fleeing the fighting in Mosul itself.
The International Organization for Migration says nearly 48,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, still a relatively low figure compared to a United Nations warning before the campaign of a possible exodus of up to 800,000.
Numani said the army had told civilians to stay indoors for their safety, adding that the counter terrorism unit aimed to hand over neighbourhoods which it had secured to other forces. In other cities retaken from Islamic State, local police forces have moved in after the special forces have cleared territory.
Killings and chemical weapons
Islamic State’s two-year reign of fear in northern and western Iraq threatened the country with disintegration, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says it has cost Iraq $35 billion in economic damage.
On Friday Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani praised the forces battling Islamic State, including thousands of Shi’ite fighters in the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary forces, for their sacrifices.
Without “the blood of these dear ones and their continuous steadfastness, only God would know what fate would await Iraq and others”, said Seyyid Ahmed al-Safi, who delivered the Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala on behalf of the aged and reclusive Shi’ite religious leader.
Inside Mosul, a city of up to 1.5 million people, residents said this week that the militants had killed at least 20 people and displayed their bodies – five of them crucified – as a warning against acting as informants for Iraqi forces.
The U.N. human rights office said a total of 40 people were reportedly shot on Tuesday for “treason and collaboration” with Iraqi security forces, and a 27-year-old man was shot for using a mobile phone.
A mass grave with more than 100 bodies found in the town of Hammam al-Alil south of Mosul was one of several Islamic State killing grounds, spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.
She cited testimony from sources including a man who escaped after playing dead during the execution of 50 former Iraqi soldiers.
She also said the jihadists were reportedly stockpiling ammonia and sulphur in civilian areas, possibly for use as chemical weapons.
On Thursday, Iraqi soldiers advancing on the eastern side of the Tigris targeted two villages close to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, a military statement said.
Troops from the Ninth Armoured Division took control of one of the villages, Abbas Rajab, four km east of Nimrud, and raised the Iraqi flag, it said.
The Iraqi government says Nimrud was bulldozed last year as part of Islamic State’s campaign to destroy symbols which the Sunni Muslim zealots consider idolatrous. It would be the first such site to be recaptured from Islamic State.