Iraqi forces dig in as Mosul battle rages
Iraqi troops on Sunday fortified their positions in Mosul neighbourhoods retaken from the Islamic State (IS) group as their advance towards the city centre was slowed by sniper fire and suicide bombings, as well as concern over the safety of civilians.
"The biggest hindrance to us is the civilians, whose presence is slowing us down," Major General Sami al-Aridi of the special forces told The Associated Press. "We are soldiers who are not trained to carry out humanitarian tasks."
A few hundred civilians emerged from rubble-strewn front-line neighbourhoods on Sunday. They included women and children, some of them carrying bags, small suitcases or waving white flags. Mosul is still home to more than one million people.
The government sent half-dozen trucks loaded with food aid into the recently liberated areas. Chaos broke out in one neighborhood, where residents climbed on top of the trucks and began helping themselves.
"It's hunger that makes people behave like this," said Mohammed Farouq, a 27-year-old resident. "Some families took many boxes, while others did not take any. This is unfair."
Al-Aridi said his men were searching homes in areas retaken from IS, looking for militants and vehicles rigged with explosives. Troops in those areas continue to be hit by mortar rounds, sniper fire and suicide bombers, he said.
In the newly liberated areas, roads are blocked by car wrecks and sandbags, and tanks are deployed on wider streets. Snipers on high buildings watch for suicide bombers or other intruders. Brigade General Haider Fadhil said four civilians were killed and another four wounded when a suicide car bomb exploded before it could reach the troops it was targeting late Saturday.
The troops laid siege on Sunday to the Al-Zohour neighbourhood, about eight kilometres (five miles) from the city centre. The arrival of the troops at the neighbourhood's fringes prompted hundreds of civilians to emerge from their homes waving white flags. The special forces later drove IS from two other neighborhoods.
The Iraqi military launched a campaign on October 17 to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the extremist group's last major urban bastion in the country. Most gains have been made by the special forces operating in the section of Mosul east of the Tigris river. Other forces are advancing on the city from different directions, and the US-led coalition is providing air strikes and other support.
IS captured Mosul in the summer of 2014 as part of a blitz that placed nearly a third of Iraq under their control. Iraqi troops, federal police and allied Shiite and Sunni militias have over the past year pushed IS militants from most of the vast Sunni province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, and areas to the north and east of the Iraqi capital.
Army troops arrived on the outskirts of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, to reinforce state-sanctioned Shiite militias, who have captured the town's airport and are preparing to retake the town, according to two senior militia officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.
Prior to its capture by IS, Shiites constituted the majority of Tal Afar's estimated 200,000 residents.