As happens too many times Iraqi propaganda got ahead of what was happening on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State. Yesterday the Federal Police announced that they and the Rapid Reaction Division had taken the town of Abu Saif, which is just outside the southern tip of Mosul. In fact, fighting continued there into the next day February 21 as insurgents were hiding in tunnels, before it was declared freed once again, although the Islamic State still held a cement factory just outside of town. The two police units were consolidating their position around Abu Saif building berms to protect against car bombs. By the end of the day, the police claimed they had taken the Ghazlani army base, reached the outskirts of the airport, and IS had abandoned it due to Iraqi artillery fire. These may all be exaggerations by the Iraqi forces (ISF) as well. Earlier the police said they would take the town of Yarmouk next to Abu Saif and then head towards Ghazlani and the airport.
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Although there were not many IS fighters in the area they were putting up a defense. Fighting in and around Abu Saif killed 8 police, and wounded more. IS also fired rockets upon Hamam al-Alil, which is a staging area for the ISF that wounded 2 soldiers. The ISF claimed they destroyed 14 car bombs and killed 14 suicide bombers turning back these assaults. Those types of figures are always open to inflation as well.
Different sections of west Mosul are coming under Iraqi artillery fire as well. That was blamed for killing five civilians. There have likely been many more casualties, but because these areas are under IS control they are not getting reported.
What is also getting sporadic reporting now that the assault upon west Mosul underway is the constant IS mortar, rocket, and drone attacks upon liberated east Mosul. During the day drones and rockets on eight neighborhoods killed 17 and injured another 17. Part of the reason for the decline in coverage is the shift towards the new operation. Another is the fact that the Iraqi government has told the media not to cover negative news during the war, and might be doing that again with this situation.
In the west the Islamic State continued to throw itself against the Hashd defenses in the Tal Afar district. The open territory means these attempts are easily defeated. IS lives for the offensive however, even when it is in dire straights like the present, and will not give up on these types of suicide missions as a result.
The Hashd also claimed it had pictures of a U.S. plan dropping arms and ammunition to the insurgents in the Tal Afar area. They have also said that the Americans are smuggling IS leaders out of Ninewa to safe areas. This has been a constant theme of pro-Iranian Hashd groups since 2014. They get it from their benefactors in Tehran who make similar statements. Both are aiming to undermine Washington as it has re-entered Iraq to help in the war, and are playing upon the plethora of conspiracy theories that are popular throughout the country.
Because of this type of criticism a commander from the Federal Police General Raed Jawadat told the press there were no foreign troops involved in the liberation of Mosul. He acknowledged the U.S. led coalition was providing air support, but that was it. The day before Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s office had to issue a similar statement. This came after several foreign papers noted that U.S. and British Special Forces were right at the front with the Federal Police and Rapid Reaction Division. Baghdad has had to play down this role to try to fend off charges from pro-Iranian elements in Iraq that the Americans are undermining the country with stories like the one above.
The United Nations has finally adjusted its predictions for displacement from the new operation. Originally they were warning of the possibility of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing west Mosul. Now they have lowered that to up to 250,000. Even that might be a high figure given that only 200,000 have left their homes in all of Ninewa since fighting started in October 2016. The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is planning on building a camp at Hamam al-Alil south of Mosul to take in the newly displaced. Until then the Iraqi government plans on transporting people to the camps already built east of the city.
The United Nations was also noting the continued difficulties in east Mosul and for those still displaced. It was concerned with the arbitrary arrests made by the ISF of suspected IS sympathizers at camps. The news of the lack of services, IS attacks, and arrests of men and boys in east Mosul has stopped some families from returning there. The army for instance, closed down the Karama neighborhood and took all the military aged males to a school and searched them looking for weapons and evidence of being IS members or sympathizers. There are more people currently going back to the city however, mostly to Intisar, Mithaq, Sumer and Gogjali, the last of which is just outside of Mosul. Those areas that were last to be freed, which were along the Tigris River and in the northeast are facing high levels of poverty and a severe lack of food. Once markets are re-opened and supplies start flowing into those areas they will recover. People don’t have much money and there are no jobs however. Many of those going back say they want to find work, secure their property and try to collect their pensions. There is a constant flow of people in and out of the city. More people are doing the latter. While many want to rebuild their lives, things are far from easy doing so. People have also started complaining about the heavy handedness of the security forces, and the lack of government support. Those are likely to increase as more time passes as the ISF is hunting down IS members and Baghdad has no money for reconstruction.
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Agence France Presse, “Iraq forces press assault on ISIS south of Mosul,” 2/21/17
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