Iraqi forces retake Mosul’s main government building and museum

Iraqi forces said Tuesday they had seized the main government offices in Mosul and its famed museum as they made steady progress in their battle to retake the city’s west from jihadists.

News of the advances came on the third day of a renewed offensive against Daesh in west Mosul — the largest remaining urban stronghold in the “caliphate” declared by the jihadists in 2014. Supported by the US-led coalition bombing Daesh in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began their push against west Mosul on February 19. The advance slowed during several days of bad weather but was renewed on Sunday. Recent advances have brought government troops and police closer to Mosul’s densely populated Old City, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to still be trapped under Daesh rule.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement that federal police and the elite Rapid Response unit had been able to “liberate” the headquarters for the Nineveh provincial government. They also seized control of the Al-Hurriyah bridgehead, it said, in a step towards potentially relinking west Mosul with the city’s east, which government forces seized from the jihadists earlier in the offensive.

Iraqi security forces advance during fighting against Daesh jihadists in western Mosul. [Photo by Khalid Mohammed/AP]

Site of artifact destruction

All the bridges crossing the Tigris in Mosul have been damaged or destroyed, and Iraqi forces would either have to repair them or install floating bridges to reconnect the two banks of the river, which divides the city.

Officers said Tuesday that security forces had also managed to recapture the Mosul museum, where the jihadists destroyed priceless artifacts, releasing a video of their rampage in February 2015. The video showed militants at the museum knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces. In another scene a jackhammer was used to deface a large Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological site in the city.

The jihadists’ attacks on ancient heritage in Iraq and Syria have sparked widespread international outrage and fears for some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. The museum was on a police list released Tuesday of sites recently recaptured from Daesh, which also included Mosul’s central bank building, which the jihadists looted along with other banks in 2014, seizing tens of millions of dollars.

Other sites recaptured during the last few days include the provincial police headquarters, the courts complex and the water and electricity directorates. The recent fighting in west Mosul has forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration. But the number who have fled is still just a fraction of the 750,000 people who are believed to have stayed on in west Mosul under Daesh rule.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP

Iraqi forces fight their way into Mosul old city center

Iraqi forces launched on Sunday a new push toward the Daesh-held old city center of Mosul, on the western bank of the Tigris river, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Iraqi forces are fighting their way toward the old center of the city, advancing from the south and the southwest, Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command, told state-run television.

According to a Syria & Iraq News source, the Iraqi forces are in close proximity to Mosul’s main government buildings.

mosul-0305-01

Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19. Their advance in western Mosul paused over the past 48 hours because of bad weather.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Car bomb kills at least 60 in Azaz

At least 60 people were killed and 50 others wounded in a car bomb explosion in rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria, according to medical sources. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor had reported, earlier, the death toll of 43 people.

azaz_170107-11a

SOHR said six rebels were among the dead, but most were believed to be civilians, adding that dozens of people had also been injured in the blast in the town near the Turkish border. Dozens were also wounded in the attack which struck in front of an Islamic courthouse where a market is located, the  Observatory said. The group said the toll was likely to rise in the attack, which was the latest in a string of bombings to hit Azaz.

azaz_170107-12a

Daesh likely behind the attack

Daesh is suspected of being behind the attack but no statement has been released yet.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/SOHR/AFP

Four Daesh suicide attacks in Baghdad kill at least 45, dozens injured

Three Daesh suicide attacks struck Baghdad on Monday killing at least 45 people and injuring dozens.

The most devastating attack happened Baghdad’s Sadr City as a suicide bomber driving a pickup loaded with explosives struck a bustling market in Sadr City, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens. The bomb went off in a fruit and vegetable market that was packed with day laborers, a police officer said, adding that another 52 people were wounded. Sadr City is a vast Shiite district in eastern Baghdad that has been repeatedly targeted by Sunni extremists since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

On-lookers at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Sadr City, Baghdad on January 2, 2017 [photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press]
On-lookers at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Sadr City, Baghdad on January 2, 2017 [photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press]

During a press conference with French President Hollande, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the bomber pretended to be a man seeking to hire day laborers. Once the workers gathered around, he detonated the vehicle.

Daesh claimed the attack in a statement circulated on a militant website often used by the jihadists. Daesh claims the attacks are “a revenge for coalition-Iraqi targeting of health services in Mosul ”. It was the third Daesh-claimed attack in as many days in and around Baghdad, underscoring the lingering threat posed by the group despite a string of setbacks elsewhere in the country over the past year, including in and around the northern city of Mosul.

Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric for whose family the neighborhood is named, were seen evacuating bodies in their trucks before ambulances arrived. Dead bodies were scattered across the bloody pavement alongside fruit, vegetables and laborers’ shovels and axes. A minibus filled with dead passengers was on fire.

Asaad Hashim, an owner of a mobile phone store nearby, described how the laborers pushed and shoved around the bomber’s vehicle, trying to get hired. “Then a big boom came, sending them up into the air,” said the 28-year old, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his right hand. He blamed “the most ineffective security forces in the world” for failing to prevent the attack. An angry crowd cursed the government, even after a representative of al-Sadr tried to calm them. Late last month, Iraqi authorities started removing some of the security checkpoints in Baghdad in a bid to ease traffic for the capital’s 6 million residents. “We have no idea who will kill at any moment and who’s supposed to protect us,” said Ali Abbas, a 40-year old father of four who was hurled over his vegetable stand by the blast. “If the securities forces can’t protect us, then allow us to do the job,” he added.

Three other attacks claim at least seven dead

Three other bombings elsewhere in the city on Monday killed another seven civilians and wounded at least 30, according to medics and police officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Two blasts struck central Baghdad on the same day, killing at least five and wounding five others, while another blast near a hospital in Sadr City killed two and wounded four others.

Daesh took responsibility for all four bomb attacks.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Associated Press/Reuters/Tomorrow Channel

Daesh attacks Iraqi police checkpoint near Najaf, kills seven

Daesh attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint near the southern city of Najaf on Sunday, killing seven policemen as government forces in the north made more gains against the militants in Mosul, their last major stronghold in the country.

najaf-170101-01The attack near Najaf, 500 km (310 mile) south of Mosul, happened when two vehicles traveling through the desert were stopped at a police checkpoint around al-Qadisiyah town, local police sources said. The driver detonated an explosive load and the second vehicle fled. Police pursued it and killed the two militants inside.

In a statement distributed online by supporters, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded 17 people including civilians. It said four gunmen had opened fire before detonating explosive vests and then a fifth assailant launched a suicide car bomb.

Source: Syria & Iraq News/Reuters

Daesh bomb attacks in Baghdad’s al-Sinak market kill at least 28

Two suicide bombers ripped through al-Sinak market area in central Baghdad Saturday, shattering a relative lull in attacks in the capital and marring preparations for New Year celebrations.

The bombers attacked the al-Sinak area, killing at least 28 people and wounding 53, a police colonel said. An officer in the interior ministry and a hospital official confirmed the toll. “Many of the victims were people from the spare parts shops in the area, they were gathered near a cart selling breakfast when the explosions went off,” said Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, who owns a nearby shop. Torn clothes and mangled iron were strewn across the ground in pools of blood at the site of the wreckage near Rasheed street, one of the main thoroughfares in Baghdad, an AFP photographer said. “Twin terrorist attacks were carried out by suicide bombers in al-Sinak neighborhood,” an official from Baghdad operations command told AFP. The area is packed with shops, workshops and wholesale markets and usually teeming with delivery trucks and laborers unloading vans or wheeling carts around.

baghdad-al-sinak-161231-01

Daesh claims attack

Daesh later claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted by its Aamaq news agency, confirming that the blasts came from a pair of suicide bombers.

Baghdad has been on high alert since the start on October 17 of an offensive, Iraq’s largest military operation in years, to retake the northern jihadist stronghold of Mosul. Daesh has tried to hit back with major diversionary attacks across the country but has had little success in Baghdad. Saturday’s twin bombings were the deadliest in the capital since the start of the Mosul offensive.

Huge crowds were expected to gather on Saturday evening in Baghdad’s streets to celebrate the New Year for only the second time since the lifting in 2015 of a years-old curfew. Last year revelers turned out for celebrations that lasted most of the night despite an already tense security backdrop.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/AFP/Associated Press

Russia announces ceasefire in Syria starting at midnight on Thursday

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ceasefire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government starting at midnight on Thursday. The parties were also prepared to start peace talks, Putin said, after Moscow, Iran and Turkey expressed readiness to broker a deal to settle the nearly six-year-old Syrian war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Kremlin, December 29, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Kremlin, December 29, 2016

The Syrian army announced a nationwide halt to fighting but said Islamic State and ex-Nusra Front militants and all groups linked to them would be excluded from the deal. It did not say which unnamed groups would be excluded. Several rebel officials told Reuters they had agreed to the ceasefire, due to come into effect at 2200 GMT on Thursday.

It was the third nationwide ceasefire agreed in Syria this year. The previous two, negotiated by Washington and Moscow, collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of violations. The current deal does not involve the United States or United Nations. One rebel commander expressed optimism that this deal would hold: “This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input,” he said, without elaborating.

Talks on the latest truce picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey last week said they were ready to back a peace deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles that any agreement should adhere to.

Putin said opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including the ceasefire, measures to monitor the truce, and a statement on readiness to start peace talks. “The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement… But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defense and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions,” Putin said. He also said Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria, where its support has turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 300,000 and forced more than 11 million to flee their homes.

Turkey said it and Russia would guarantee the ceasefire. “With this agreement, parties have agreed to cease all armed attacks, including aerial, and have promised not to expand the areas they control against each other,” the Turkish foreign ministry said.

Three rebel officials told Reuters the deal excluded Islamic State, but did include the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front – appearing to contradict the Syrian army’s statement.

Russia’s defence ministry said the insurgent groups that signed the agreement included the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, which operates primarily near Damascus, and Jabha Shamiya, one of the main groups that has operated in Aleppo.

Washington sidelined

The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally. Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington’s policy on Syria, officials have said. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month. Talks on the ceasefire reflect the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides. Turkey and Russia support different sides in the war. Ankara has insisted on the departure of Assad, who is backed by Russia.

Likewise, demands that troops from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement leave Syria may not please Iran, another major supporter of Assad. Hezbollah troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against rebels opposed to Assad. “All foreign fighters need to leave Syria. Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

Sources have told Reuters that, under an outline deal between the three countries, Syria could be divided into informal zones of regional power and Assad would remain president for at least a few years.

Meanwhile, disagreements remain between big powers. Ankara supports the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups, some of which it is backing in operations in northern Syria designed to sweep Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters from its southern border. The United States is backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, a move that has infuriated Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara fears that advances by Kurdish fighters in Syria could inflame militants at home.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting terrorism in Syria, including Islamic State, comments that Washington has dismissed as “ludicrous”. “We, as Turkey, have been calling on Western nations for some time to not distinguish between terrorist organizations and to be principled and consistent in their stance,” Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday. “Some countries, namely the United States, have come up with some excuses on their own and overtly supported the organisations that massacre innocent people in our region.”

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News