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Civilians bear the brunt of Mosul offensive   

Gulf Today - 20 March, 2017

Thousands of Iraqis surged out of western Mosul during a lull in heavy fighting in districts around the densely populated Old City where Iraqi forces are facing fierce resistance from Daesh militants.

Five months into the battle to take Daesh’s last bastion in Iraq, government forces have cleared the east and half of western Mosul, and are now focused on controlling the Old City as well as the strategic al-Nuri Mosque.

Tens of thousands have flowed out of war-wracked Mosul in recent weeks, but Samir Hamid and 33 family members have decided to go against the tide to return home.

“We stayed with relatives for a week and now we’re going back home,” says the father-of-five, who has travelled with his extended family from a small town outside Mosul.

Iraqi forces have retaken several neighbourhoods in west Mosul from the Daesh group since starting an assault last month to recapture the extremists’ last major urban bastion in the country.

More than 150,000 people have fled their homes in west Mosul, the Iraqi authorities say, of which two-thirds have found shelter in camps near the city where they receive food, blankets and foam mattresses.

But Hamid says he, his five brothers and their families -- 34 people in total -- are heading home to the Wadi Hajar district after finding there was no space for them in a displaced camp in the Hamam al-Alil area.

“We couldn’t find any room at the camp,” says the man in his thirties.

“There are too many people there -- three to four families per tent,” says Hamid, dressed entirely in black and his plastic sandals covered in mud.

As they approach a hill to climb on the city outskirts, Hamid’s family grab small metal carts abandoned by civilians who have fled the city in the opposite direction.

They pile on their bags crammed with belongings.

As fighting has entered into the narrow alleyways and densely populated parts of the west, more residents are fleeing liberated areas where food and water are scarce, security fragile and where homes are often caught in shelling.

“We have been trapped for 25 days. No water, no food, everyone will die and they will have to pull us from the rubble,” said one resident of Bab Jdid district, not giving his name because relatives remained inside Mosul.

Families with elderly relatives and children marched through western Mosul’s muddy streets, past buildings pock-marked by bullet and bombs. Some said they had hardly eaten in weeks, scrambling for supplies handed out by a local aid agency.

Iraqi forces backed by helicopter strikes engaged in heavy fighting with extremists on the outskirts of the Old City on Sunday as they pressed an offensive to recapture west Mosul.

The elite Rapid Response Force and Iraqi federal police attacked the Daesh group militants with rifles, machineguns, mortar rounds and rockets a month after the west Mosul operation began.

The joint forces were around 100 metres (yards) south of Mosul’s Iron Bridge, which has been destroyed along with other bridges that span the Tigris River that linked the city’s eastern and western sides.

Helicopters circled overhead harrying Daesh with barrages of bullets and rocket fire in strikes aided by weather that was clearer than it had been in recent days, AFP correspondents said.

“The aim of the battle is to go past Al-Hadidi (Iron) Bridge northwards,” Brigadier General Abbas Al-Juburi of the Rapid Response units told reporters.

He said the operation was complicated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of civilians believed to have stayed on under extremists rule.

“The difficulties are the presence of families, how to avoid opening fire on families who are used as human shields” by Daesh, Juburi said.

The battle for the densely populated Old City, with its warrens of alleyways, was always expected to be the toughest of the campaign to retake Mosul from Daesh.

In January Iraqi forces retook the east side of the city before setting their sights on the west.

At the heart of the Old City lies the Al-Nuri Mosque, where Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in July 2014 proclaimed the Daesh “caliphate” that spans extremist-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.

It was Baghdadi’s first public appearance and the capture of the mosque would be highly symbolic and strategic for the Iraqi forces who have in recent days taken several targets from Daesh.
 
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