Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. and Iraqi air power took control of two districts of eastern Mosul on Saturday after heavy fighting in which they destroyed nine cars deployed by Daesh as suicide bombs, the military said. Infantry and armored division troops also advanced in a nearby neighborhood, destroying three rocket launchers and killing 30 jihadists, it said in a statement said.
Iraqi troops have been fighting for 10 days inside eastern Mosul, trying to expand their small foothold in the city which Daesh has controlled since mid-2014, when its leader declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The nearly four-week campaign to drive Daesh out of the biggest city under its control in either country has brought together an alliance of 100,000 Iraqi fighters, also backed by thousands of Western personnel on the ground. They have faced fierce resistance from a few thousand militants who have deployed hundreds of suicide car bombers and waves of attacks by snipers, assault fighters and rocket teams. Daesh has also used a network of tunnels around the city and merged into the civilian population of 1.5 million people still living there, helping it launch surprise raids and ambushes on the troops.
The military statement said the Counter Terrorism Service took control of the districts of al-Qadisiya al-Thania, which it moved into on Friday, and adjacent al-Arbajiya. Further south, but still on the eastern fringes, troops from the First Infantry and Ninth Armoured divisions attacked the jihadists in the Salam neighborhood. Security forces and army troops are also advancing on southern and northern fronts close to the city, aiming to open new fronts inside Mosul to put further pressure on the jihadists.
The attacking forces include Iraqi army troops and special forces and federal police units. Outside the city, Kurdish peshmerga forces are holding territory to the northeast and mainly Shi’ite paramilitary forces are deployed to the west. They are supported by U.S.-led air power, including jets and Apache helicopters, and Western military advisers who have accompanied Iraqi forces on the edge of Mosul.
The International Organisation for Migration says so far 49,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, the most complex military operation in more than a decade of turmoil since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein.
The Syrian army captured the Dahiyet al-Assad district of western Aleppo on Saturday after a 48 hour long battle with the jihadist rebels of Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest), reversing all the gains made by rebels two weeks into their counter-attack against government-held areas. State television said the army swept the suburban area for landmines after regaining full control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army and its allies made several advances on the divided city’s western edge this week, hampering the rebel offensive to break the siege on opposition-held districts. Syrian government forces took Minyan village and nearby positions, which were captured by rebels last month, the Observatory said.
Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Fastaqim rebel group fighting in Aleppo, confirmed the army’s advances. “Of course, when the regime takes control, it has a negative effect, but there is persistence” among the factions, he said. “And hopefully there will be change in the coming days.”
Syrian government forces launched a major Russian-backed assault on eastern Aleppo in September after besieging the area, which the United Nations says is home to 275,000 people.
On Oct. 28, rebels counter-attacked in a bid to break the siege, targeting western districts of Aleppo in an offensive that included Islamist militants and rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner. But their progress slowed after early advances.
Quoting a Syrian military source, state news agency SANA said the army and its allies were steadily advancing on the western outskirts. This week the army also captured the 1070 Apartments district and nearby hills in southwest Aleppo, a focal point of fighting for months and important because of its position alongside a corridor used by the government into the western zone.
Russia says its air force has been observing a moratorium on air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo since Oct. 18. The Observatory and emergency workers in eastern Aleppo said heavy air strikes had killed at least 450 people, and hit hospitals and other civilian facilities prior to that.
Rebel shelling of government-held western Aleppo has meanwhile killed 92 people, including 29 children, during the two-week offensive, the Observatory reported.
With both the Dahiyet al-Assad and Minyan neighborhoods under their control, the Syrian Arab Army’s ‘Tiger Forces’ turned their attention to the Aqrab area of west Aleppo, which is the last site needed to reverse all of the rebels’ gains since September.
Daesh fighters have reportedly shot and killed scores of civilians in Mosul in recent days, according to the UN, which has also confirmed the discovery of a mass grave in the nearby town of Hammam al-Alil in which more than 100 bodies were found.
In a brief published on Friday detailing a series of Daesh executions and abuses, the UN’s human rights office said that 40 people were killed by the armed group on Tuesday for “treason and collaboration” with Iraqi forces and their allies closing in on the city during a major military push. Dressed in orange jumpsuits, the bodies of the victims were hung from electrical poles in several areas around Mosul, the UN said.
On Wednesday evening, Daesh reportedly shot to death a further 20 civilians in the Ghabat military base in northern Mosul, also on charges of leaking information. “Their bodies were also hung at various intersections in Mosul, with notes stating: ‘Decision of execution’ and ‘used cell phones to leak information to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)’,” the UN said. The rights office also said the mass grave in Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, was just one of several Daesh killing grounds.
The site was discovered on Monday and contained the bodies of at least 100 people, including former ISF officers and Daesh detainees, as well as people killed for initiating anti-Daesh attacks since the beginning of the Mosul operation four weeks ago.
“I’ve been in Erbil since the beginning of this military operation to retake the city of Mosul and we have documented hundreds of executions by Daesh,” Belkis Wille, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera from Erbil. “We are not surprised, unfortunately, to see mass graves like this one [in Hammam al-Alil]; it definitely is not the only one.”
The human rights body said they had received reports of Daesh stockpiling large amounts of chemicals in civilian areas in order to be used as weapons. At least four people died from inhaling fumes after Daesh shelled and set fire to the al-Mishrag sulfur gas factory in Mosul on October 23.
The UN also said it had gathered evidence that teenagers and young boys were being used by Daesh as suicide bombers during the offensive, while young girls and women were being sexually exploited by the armed group’s fighters. “Since 27 October, Daesh has been relocating abducted women, including Yazidi women, into Mosul city and into Tel Afar town,” the human rights body said in its brief. “Some of these women were reportedly ‘distributed’ to Daesh fighters while others have been told they will be used to accompany Daesh convoys.”
But in its brief, the UN human rights office also urged the Iraqi government to ensure that the rights of Mosul civilians are met amid accusations of atrocities committed by government forces. It cited sporadic reports of retaliatory attacks, including allegations of revenge killings by civilians or by forces under the control of the Iraqi army.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said that he welcomed a statement by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemning such acts, but urged the government to act to prevent reprisals and revenge killings. “Justice for the victims and survivors of human rights abuses and violations – irrespective of when, where or by whom such abuses and violations were committed – need to be impartial, transparent and effective,” Zeid said. “The government of Iraq must act quickly to restore effective law enforcement in areas retaken from Daesh to ensure that captured fighters and their perceived supporters are dealt with according to the law.”
One video circulating on social media on Friday appeared to show a teenage boy being shot and run over by a tank used by what seemed to be Iraqi-backed forces. “I think we need to exercise extreme caution with videos like this,” HRW’s Wille told Al Jazeera. “We know that Daesh previously produced fake videos showing Iraqi forces committing abuses.” There is a possibility that this video had been faked by Daesh fighters to shift the public opinion against Iraqi forces, she said. “There is no flag on the tank in the video. That is a bit inconsistent with what I’ve seen on Iraqi force tanks,” Wille said. “Also only one man in the video is wearing an Iraqi uniform, and there are no other armored vehicles in the area.” But, she said, if the video is genuine, Iraqi authorities should take swift action to stop these kinds of extrajudicial killings. “Unfortunately in the battle to retake Fallujah, we’ve seen multiple instances of abuses perpetrated by pro-government forces against the civilian population. “And there is an extreme concern that this may happen again in Mosul.”
Sources: UN Media Centre/Syria & Iraq News/Al Jazeera
The executive body of the global chemical weapons watchdog voted on Friday to condemn the use of banned toxic agents by the Syrian government and by Daesh group, a source who took part in the closed session said. Roughly two-thirds of the 41 members on the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), endorsed a U.S.-tabled text, the source told Reuters.
The OPCW’s Executive Council, which meets behind closed doors, seldom votes on such matters, generally operating through consensus. But this text was supported by 28 members, including Germany, France, the United States and Britain. It was opposed by Russia, China, Sudan and Iran. There were nine abstentions.
The U.S.-Russian split over Syria was striking as it was those two countries that in 2013 took the lead in getting the Damascus government to join the OPCW and avert threatened U.S.-led military intervention in Syria’s civil war. A 13-month international inquiry by the OPCW and United Nations concluded in a series of reports that Syrian government forces, including helicopter squadrons, were responsible for the use of chlorine barrel bombs against civilians.
The OPCW-U.N. mission found that the Syrian government carried out three toxic attacks in March and April of last year, while Daesh had used sulfur mustard gas.
The findings set the stage for a U.N. Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, likely pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France over how those responsible for the attacks should be held accountable. Syrian authorities deny having used chemical weapons in the conflict. Islamic State has not commented.
At least ten Iranian pilgrims were killed in a suicide attack in Iraq’s holy city of Samarra, about 125 km north of Baghdad on Sunday.
Pilgrimage official Mohammad Javad Daneshyar said the Iranians were getting off a bus when an ambulance carrying the suicide bomber approached them and blew up. Government forces imposed, on Sunday, a ban on roaming in the district of Samarra in Salahuddin province, following the bombings that hit the province. Meanwhile, a government source said, “The police imposed a ban on roaming in the district of Samarra, south of Tikrit in Salahuddin province.” The source added that “the police called on residents through loudspeakers to the need for caution and stay at home after the blasts witnessed by the province.”
President Vladimir Putin has ordered a humanitarian pause in Aleppo from 9am to 7pm on November 4, the Russian General Staff has reported, while urging the armed groups to stop fighting in Aleppo and leave the city with their arms via two corridors.
General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said the militants failed to break through the blockade around the city last week and accept Russia’s proposal to leave eastern Aleppo through two specially designated corridors, while reiterating that they would be allowed to keep arms.
“Considering that our American colleagues were unable to separate the opposition from terrorists, we are addressing all militant leaders directly, urging them to cease hostilities and leave Aleppo with their arms. Two corridors will be opened, from which Syrian troops and weapons would be pulled back.”
One of the corridors for the militants leads to the Turkish-Syrian border and another one to Idlib, the general said.
During Friday’s pause, six additional corridors will be opened for civilians wishing to leave the city, the general said. A previous attempt to evacuate residents from the besieged city in order to minimize civilian casualties was derailed by militants who shelled the corridor to prevent them from leaving. A UN-led attempt to provide medical evacuations also failed.
The Russian military say they are attempting the same scheme again in light of the serious losses suffered by the militants during an attempt to break out last week. Moscow says by taking up the offer, the rebels could avoid needless deaths.
“All attempts by the militants by break through the blockade of Aleppo failed. The terrorists sustained serious loss of manpower, arms and vehicles. They no longer have any chance to break out of the city,” Gerasimov said.