The secret lives of young IS fighters

Three young IS militants lie dead on the banks of the River Tigris.

They left behind personal photos and documents which reveal the extraordinary story of their private lives.

Warning: Disturbing content

Mohammed is giddy with excitement as he films the discovery of three IS fighters on his mobile phone.

“Shoot him,” he shouts, gesturing at one of them.

His nervousness gives him away as the unit’s cook. He’s unarmed, but his fellow soldiers from the Iraqi police special forces – known as the Emergency Response Division – are armed to the teeth and are not taking any chances.

A body and a pile of clothes on the banks of the Tigris

A body and a pile of clothes on the banks of the Tigris

Two of the IS fighters are clearly dead. One, most likely a boy, is buried under the rubble of concrete bunker. His small, blackened hand sticks out from mangled remains. Nearby, an older fighter lies in the grass. His eyes are open, but part of his head is missing. He died in the same airstrike that took out the bunker.

But it is the third man, lying in the shadows, further ahead on the path alongside the River Tigris, who has the soldiers worried.

Be careful … Look to his hand, maybe he has a grenade. Go slowly.”

Mohammed

They fire a couple of shots into the prone figure. It does not move.

“He is a son of a bitch, he was hiding. Be careful, be careful,” says one of the soldiers. “I don’t think he has a suicide vest,” says another.

An Iraqi soldier investigates the scene

An Iraqi soldier investigates the scene

They are at the foot of an olive grove, which is serving as the temporary base of the ERD as they push towards west Mosul, the last major redoubt of IS in Iraq.

Up close I look upon the dead man. His right leg is mangled, sliced through to the bone. He appears to have crawled out of the bunker and found a small hiding place in the rocks by the riverside.

Even in death his face is distinctive – a narrow chin and a puckish nose. His beard is wispy. He is more of a boy than a man. Nearby, soldiers find an M16 rifle which is marked as property of the US Government.

Close up of the M16 machine gun

Close up of the M16 machine gun

It is likely to have been among the thousands of weapons and vehicles IS seized from retreating Iraqi forces when it swept through from Syria more than two years previously.

“Adel, Adel, does anyone have ammunition? I want a full magazine,” says a fighter searching the dead man. The M16 now belongs to the man who found it.

“We have to go, it isn’t safe here,” an officer tells me. The men are jumpy and want to return to the base. There are still other IS fighters in the area, they warn.

It is late February and these men are in the midst of the battle of their lives. In three days they made lightning progress across the territory to the south of Mosul. Ahead of them the village of the Al-Buseif, then the ruined airport and the neighbourhoods of the west of the city.

All would fall in rapid succession, but the closer to Mosul they come, the more IS fighters they encounter, and the more bodies end up strewn across the roads and pathways.

It is already clear from the assault on the city’s east – it took 100 days – that IS prepared well for this fight. Mosul was turned into a giant arsenal, with weapons dumps and hideouts in every neighbourhood.

Before we climb back up the hill to the base, I look again on the dead fighters. In the grass beside one, I find a small piece of paper marked with an IS stamp. It is a leave permission slip. On the back, it is smeared with his blood.

IS leave permission slip

IS leave permission slip

The soldiers do one final check of the bodies. On the young man in the shadows, they find some cash – a small amount of Syrian pounds, almost worthless. But in his other pocket, there is something small and far more valuable – a memory card from a mobile phone.

The pictures on it will lead us to uncover fragments of the lives of the dead men, the deep camaraderie among them, their brutality, and their journey through the battle for Mosul. And it will cast light on the dead fighter in the shadows. Who was this young man and what secrets of Islamic State did he leave behind?

His hidden
photos

The photographs begin as bright family snapshots, but soon darken. The young man is seated, with the trace of a smile on his face. He is doe-eyed beside a little girl. Perhaps it is his sister. He holds her close, and she has her index finger raised – the Islamic sign for one true god.

His hair is curly, long and parted in the middle, and as the pictures progress they have been edited. His cheeks and lips turned a girlish pink, the whites of his eyes are touched-up and bright.

A transformation is taking place.

Soon he is in military gear, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, a walkie-talkie in his top pocket.

In another photo, he is asleep. It is almost certainly posed, the intention is to show a warrior at rest.

This is no longer a family album, it’s now a record of a martyr-to-be, a baby-faced suicide attacker, cleansed and ready to sacrifice himself for his cause.

The memory card found on his body has other pictures, too.
There is a group shot of young men and boys. The fighter is not in the frame. Maybe he is behind the camera, taking the shot. I would later learn that most of the men and boys were from Mosul and were part of the Nineveh Fire Support Group, a rear-line, back-up unit. Their time in IS has forged a deep bond between them.

One of the most striking is a photograph of what appears to be the fighter’s brother-in-arms. This man looks older, his hair is long and is also parted. He stares intently at the camera. My eye is drawn to his hands, which are settled on his waist. Curiously, he is wearing black gloves. Underneath those hands, hidden by his shirt, there is a suicide belt. His thumbs rest on its bulge.

The gloves are worn to hide the switch that will detonate the explosives, disguised so that the target does not recognise the threat posed by the smiling young man in khaki, until it is too late.

There are group pictures, too, with older men. Battle-hardened and scarred, their faces are unforgettable. And to some in Mosul, they are familiar.

But the photographs from the phone card have another secret to reveal, one that was right under my nose the entire time.

Secret hideout

The men fighting in the battle for Mosul alternate between two states – the hyper vigilance of the battlefield and a swallowing exhaustion barely touched by a few hours sleep at night.

As a journalist following the men, I slip into the same routine. Rising before dawn, driving to the front, watching as they dodge mortar and rocket fire, avoid roadside bombs and drones. And ducking when IS snipers and fighters open fire.

At night there is barely time for my crew to edit, recharge our equipment, and get some sleep, before heading out again.

Aerial footage of the farmhouse

Aerial footage of the farmhouse

So we do not pay very close attention to our sleeping quarters. In short, it is dark, we are tired, and we have other priorities. All we know is they’ve been checked for booby traps and that we are relatively safe here.

After almost two weeks at the farmhouse, the bodies of the three fighters still lie where they fell. But the dogs and birds are at their corpses. They are increasingly unrecognisable.

As I go through the pictures from the mobile phone card again, the penny drops. These men did not just fight at the farmhouse. It was their home too. I recognise its walls and furnishings in some of the pictures.

Discovering the hideout:

On our last day at the front, with just a few hours to pack and return to the safety of Irbil, I decide to explore. Above my sleeping bag, there is a window. I remove the dusty curtain. Underneath are hidden notices from the caliphate, official IS orders.

They show IS struggling for resources, especially manpower and that the caliphate’s ranks are depleting fast.

On November 11, the Islamic State’s Minister for War calls for more special forces recruits.

By mid-December, new orders are issued to prevent desertion from the front.

Brothers are not allowed to retreat – use of force and commensurate violence allowed”

IS orders

At the back of a room, a blanket covers the wall. I can feel a draught from behind it, so I give it a sharp tug. In a cloud of dust, it falls away and reveals another room, small and bright, with a single window to a vegetable garden, and a bed.

This is the dead men’s sleeping quarters. Their clothes, and much more besides, lie scattered across the floor.

There is a Chelsea Football Club pillowcase lying beside IS wall posters, which list punishments for crimes in the caliphate.

Electrical parts are stripped from sockets and flashlights, presumably for military purposes. In the midst of the mess, something catches my eye. It is an anti-fungal medicine box with a blond-haired baby pictured on the front.

Its eyes are carefully gouged out. This defacement is likely because of an Islamic prohibition of the depiction of the human form.

The room is filthy. Hidden in the piles of material, something important has been left behind. A few pages of detailed handwritten notes and diagrams are carefully folded. They clearly meant a lot to the author, his IS staff number is written in the corner, and in bold English letters, his name: Abu Ali Al Moslaue. Is this the name of the young man depicted in the photos?

The handwriting is neat and careful in the beginning, and the notes are meticulous. They serve an important purpose, life and death, in fact. Abu Ali was learning how to fire mortars. It appears that he was an excellent and a diligent student. But like all schoolboys, he becomes more careless and erratic as the lessons drag on.

But he takes pride in his work. He notes practice runs in converting coordinates from Google Maps to actual targeting coordinates. He draws compass degrees as well as the curved graph course of mortar rounds.

Importantly, in the munitions section and in his own handwriting, he lists “chemical munitions” as a weapon.

There’s been much debate over whether IS has used chemical weapons in Mosul. Here at least, we know they are trained and prepared to use them.

He personalises his notes, sketching a logo for the unit and a makeshift IS stamp, labelled General Support Units.

And there are mottos: “Islamic State: Along the Prophet’s Methodology” and “Islamic State remains, in spite of the haters”.

He used an Education Department exam paper as his notebook, and clearly finds this amusing.

He records the school year as 2016-17, Subject: Mortar, and scores his own paper: “Final Marks: Congratulations. You passed. Total Marks: 100.”

The hideout has even more secrets to reveal. As I search through the detritus something catches my eye.

It looks irrelevant at first. The notebook is in tatters, hanging by a thread. Someone has scribbled the same Islamic poem and a prayer verse several times over a few pages, as if to etch them into memory. There are mistakes, the handwriting is shabby, the structure unappealing. This definitely doesn’t belong to Abu Ali.

But then numbers emerge, names, tables, tabulations and permutations. Whoever scribbled those names and numbers had the authority to dispatch patrols, put men on shifts together, see how many rounds they fired and how many they need for their next outing.

It definitely belongs to someone senior at that farmhouse, possibly the commander of those men. I discover his name is Abu Hashem.

The notebook reveals its secrets – it is a unit’s logbook from the Al-Buseif Air Defence Brigade, a sub-unit of the Nineveh Fire Support Group. They must have all been sharing the same farmhouse.

All in all, Abu Hashem commanded eight men and two vehicles. They formed the bulk of the Al-Buseif Air Defence mobile patrol. They drove a Hyundai pickup truck with a double-barrel anti-air cannon, and another pickup truck with a smaller calibre, single barrel heavy machine gun. Both vehicles were white, which is reportedly the preferred colour for Islamic State combat vehicles because they’re easier to camouflage with dirt and blend into the terrain.

Commander Abu Hashem appears to have been diligent. He meticulously records the sorties, the types of weapons used, the chassis number of his trucks, how many rounds they had, their type, how many rounds fired – even the faulty ones.

Not only was he a good logistician, but he also understood how small units worked. The record shows how he tried to foster and strengthen bonds between his men. Scheduling their lives, Abu Hashem made sure to couple fighters serving on the same vehicle to have meals together.

And so, while he’s having lunch with Abu Riad, his driver, Abu Hafs, the driver of the other vehicle is paired with a gunner, Abu Al-Sham.

The commander, his logbook shows, has clearly put some thought into this. He worked on two possible permutations, crossing off names before putting in a clean draft.

The burden of command must have weighed heavily on Abu Hashem’s mind while commanding his troops. This, however, didn’t soften him up.

Like any seasoned commander, he proved ready to show a tough disciplinary side. In one written order, he tasks one of his subordinates to lead a patrol. “Those who are found lacking must be punished,” he orders. “May Allah reward you with goodness,” wishing him well.

Taking the photos and the bundles of documents with me, I leave the farmhouse and finally Iraq. But for months, the men remain in my head.

Using what I already know about them, would I be able to find out more? Did they have families? What kind of lives had they led?

My search to find out more about the men begins in Mosul. It is early April and the 1st Brigade of Iraq’s ERD forces are deep inside the west of the city.

The farmhouse seems like a lifetime ago. Their new base, a house near the front lines is in a residential neighbourhood.

The steady thump of mortar fire rattles what is left of the windows. Captured IS suspects are being brought here. One man is pulled from a pick-up truck by the fighters.

He has been badly beaten. His T-shirt is covered in blood. It is not clear who hurt him.

It may have been the troops, or it could have been locals exacting revenge on those who had controlled and oppressed them in the proceeding years.

An intelligence major calls me into a back room. “I have someone for you to meet, someone we haven’t shared with anyone else,” he says.

A young, shifty-looking man, slight and dressed like an off-duty soldier comes into the room. Let’s call him Ibrahim.

He fought with IS for two years, but he is not a prisoner. He is a double agent, working for the Iraqi security forces.

I show him the photos that I have brought from the farmhouse.

Quentin speaks to Ibrahim:

“I know them very well,” he says. “Those are fighters. They were with the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Unit. This one was the section’s commander,” he says pointing to one of the older men in the photographs.

“They acted as a support unit for the front-line troops. They would spring into action as soon as they were needed.”

Along with the intelligence major, he confirms the men were mostly from Mosul. Ibrahim reflects on what his membership of IS had done to him, and most likely to the men and boys in the pictures.

I learned how to be tough. How to beat and kill without mercy. Especially with regards to prisoners”

Ibrahim

He notes that men from the Nineveh Fire Support Group lived spartan lives. “You should live like the Prophet, a simple life. A fighter needs very little to survive,” he says.

It is clear from Ibrahim and others that I meet that most of the men and boys in the pictures are dead.

Identifying all the men in the photographs has proved impossible. IS fighters use noms de guerre, but there was another factor at play.

As one member of the Mosul’s special forces team explains, “When IS came they were children, we don’t recognise them as men.”

Long before their advance stalled around Mosul’s old city, Iraqi forces advanced far quicker than expected towards the city’s western side. And it appears it was much faster than the Nineveh Fire Support Group anticipated.

Abu Ali and his brothers in arms had no time to destroy the material in their hideout. Their grasp of operational security was weak.

A slip of paper discovered on the floor of the farmhouse turns out to be coordinates of locations across Mosul.

Using Google Earth maps, I plot the information. I recognise one location – an IS mortar factory that I had visited in November 2016. The other coordinates are mortar storage and production units too, according to Iraq security forces.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, territory assessed as credible on 19 June 2017

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, territory assessed as credible on 19 June 2017

About a dozen men had worked at the factory producing precisely milled mortar shells.

They had burned oil fires through holes in the building roof to hide it from coalition aircraft.

By the time we return to the mortar foundry in April, it is cleared of the shells and returned to commercial use.

Now it is making water tanks and roofing to replace those damaged in the fighting.

In November, people were willing to talk about the IS fighters who made weapons there, but by April, a wariness has settled on east Mosul. Locals may be freed from IS, but it feels like the militants are not very far away. The fear of retribution hangs in the air.

And it becomes easy to understand why when I make my way to the final destination in the journey to retrace the men of the Nineveh Fire Support Group.

In amongst the papers and documents I retrieved from the farmhouse are a number of religious books.

All are marked with the stamp of a mosque in east Mosul – one bearing the name of an imam has been dedicated to the young men.

Mosque of the believers

The Al Mou’meneen Mosque is not far from the mortar factory, and it is here that the group from the farmhouse prayed and brought terror to the local neighbourhood.

The mosque is modest and mostly without adornment. It is a bright spring day, and children are making their way home from school. But I have a sense of trepidation as I knock on the metal door. Is the imam who dedicated the book to the fighters still inside?

The caretaker answers and welcomes me inside. I take off my shoes and he sends a boy to find the imam. I sit waiting in the sunshine, drinking some sweet tea, listening to the children playing outside.

The imam who signed the book is long gone, he fled with IS. So the caretaker calls to find the man who led prayers before IS took control of Mosul.

The imam arrives, his name is Fares Fadel Ibrahim. He is younger than I expected, broad-shouldered and with a quiet confidence.

I show him the pictures of the fighters and he recognises most of them.

Quentin speaks to the imam:

He is nervous, though, and I soon discover why. “Please,” he asks, “Do not film me looking at the pictures.” Why is he afraid of these young men?

The fighters, he says, moved their entire families into this neighbourhood. Most were Iraqi, but there were foreigners, from Syria, Morocco and elsewhere, he says. They lived among them for more than a year and fled in November 2016 when Iraqi security forces advanced closer to the area.

Mullah Fares is, he explains, the temporary imam until the Department of Religious Affairs appoints someone permanently.

That said, it is clear that this is his mosque. He has prayed here since he was a boy – since the mosque was built in 1980. And then he preached there alongside the permanent imam, until IS came.

“What happened to the permanent imam,” I ask. “They murdered him,” he replies. And replaced him with their own preacher – the man who dedicated the book to the fighters. He called them “beloved darlings”.

As we sit on the carpet together in the prayer hall, he explains the story of IS in Mosul and his neighbourhood. They corrupted the city, he says, and worse still, the world’s view of Islam.

At first they treated people well, he explains. “They came with respect and appreciation and then their true intentions appeared.”

For IS, the mosques are a means of control and of recruitment.

Mullah Fares was given the option – join IS or stay at home and only return to the mosque he loved, to pray. So, he returned home.

They came in the name of faith, the residents of Mosul love faith, so anybody that comes to us as a person of faith we welcome it. But the reality was one thing and truth was another.”

Fares Fadel Ibrahim

IS set about a purge. Other preachers were accused of being “delaying salafies,” and were imprisoned for a month, or longer. When released they promised never to lead prayer again. Others, like the Al Mou’meneen’s permanent imam, were killed.

Looking at the pictures of the young men from the Nineveh Fire Support Group, Mullah Fares pauses for a moment, then says: “The power is with the person who holds the gun, even if he is very small and young. Like the young men from ISIS [IS] who killed some strong and old men of ours, like the imam here in the mosque, who was killed by children.”

It would soon be time for afternoon prayers and we have to finish the interview. Dozens of curious children are crowded around the mosque’s door, eager to get inside. But before Mullah Fares finishes, he has one more thing to say, about the young men who held this city.

They distorted the image of Islam, and this thinking will remain.”

Fares Fadel Ibrahim

He continues, “My dear brother, we are by nature people who love faith, young or old, we love Islam and Muslims. Even the prophet, while he encouraged invading different places, he ordered his men not to kill a child, a woman, or an old man, and not to cut down one tree. So where were these values of Islam?”

And with that, he stands up and begins the call to prayer. From the sunshine outside, the waiting children burst through the doors and get ready for their lessons.

The three dead fighters on the banks of the Tigris were little more than children. In fact, one was still was a child. The Nineveh Fire Support Group were enthusiastic in their campaign of destruction and terror. They helped turn parts of their city into a ruin, and furthered the corruption of their faith.

Did they die happy, knowing they had served their cause as was asked of them, I wonder.

They died as fighters, but they died as fools. Pity should be reserved for the people they once lived among, who were abused and killed as the young men sacrificed all around them, for their caliphate.

When they left Mullah Fares’ neighbourhood, they said to the people, “You did not take care of the caliphate, so you do not deserve it.”

But the truth of their cause was revealed when IS went into homes and destroyed them, killing families. IS and the Nineveh Fire Support Group had no love for Mosul nor its people. The young fighters were willing recruits, but they were also manipulated.

Quentin studies the photos:

As I retrace their steps through Mosul, the thing that strikes me most of all is their youth. It surprised almost everyone we spoke to. For IS, a fighter is anyone above the age of 15, but some of their recruits are much younger.

IS has had support in Mosul, but it inflated that support by weaponising children. Taking the young and the gullible and sacrificing them for its malicious cause.

In Mosul, IS is on the brink of defeat. The bodies by the riverbank are gone – carried away by dogs and other animals.

There is no longer any trace there of the young men. But their legacy of turmoil and destruction remains. It stretches far beyond Mosul, and far beyond the flow of the River Tigris.

IS destroys Mosul mosque where leader Baghdadi declared caliphate

“Islamic State” militants have blown up the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul where their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a self-styled caliphate in 2014. It comes as Iraqi forces push into Mosul’s Old City.

Watch video00:38

‘IS’ destroys Mosul’s landmark al-Nuri mosque

The so-called “Islamic State” (IS) destroyed Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri mosque and its iconic leaning minaret late Wednesday, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense.

“The Daesh (IS) terror gangs committed another historical crime by blowing up the al-Nuri mosque and its historical al-Hadba minaret,” the Iraqi military statement said.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making a speech Reuters TV/File PhotoReclusive IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the “caliphate” at the mosque in 2014

The landmark, also known as Mosul’s Great Mosque, is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq – and named himself “caliph” – in mid-2014 shortly after the city was captured by the militants. It was the only time he has appeared in public.

Iraq’s prime minister said the demolition was IS effectively admitting defeat.

“It’s an official declaration of defeat,” Haider al-Abadi said in a statement issued hours after news broke of the mosque’s destruction.

Amaq, the IS news agency, blamed the destruction on a US airstrike. But a spokesman for the US-lead coalition denied striking the mosque. “We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Reuters.

“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” said a statement from the commander of the coalition’s ground component, US Army Major General Joseph Martin, using another acronym for IS.

A video shared on social media by a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a vast billow of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, saying “the minaret, the minaret, the minaret.”

Video released by Iraq’s military appears to show Nouri Mosque in Mosul being detonated by explosives.

Iraqi troops backed by US airpower  launched a push earlier this week to drive out IS fighters surrounded in Mosul’s Old City, after retaking several neighborhoods in western Mosul over the past few weeks.

The last militants are holed up in the Old City along with an estimated 100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.

More than 850,000 people have been displaced since the offensive to retake Iraq’s second-largest city began eight months ago.

Watch video01:45

Mosul: Fleeing ‘Islamic State’

aw/cmk (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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‘Islamic State’ kills hundreds of fleeing civilians in Mosul, says UN

The UN says it has credible reports that “Islamic State” (IS) has killed more than 231 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul city since May 26. The UN body is also investigating civilian deaths in anti-IS airstrikes.

Irak - Flucht aus Mossul (picture alliance/AP/dpa/M. Alleruzzo)

A statement from the office of the United Nations human rights chief said Thursday the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) group had killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians trying to flee Mosul.

The UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had on Tuesday accused the militants of killing 163 civilians on June 1 in the city’s al-Shifa neighborhood.

The Thursday statement adds two new allegations, including a May 26 incident where IS reportedly shot dead 27 people, including five children.

Karte Irak ENG

The UN’s rights office said the jihadists slaughtered 41 civilians in the same neighborhood on June 3.

“Credible reports indicate that more than 231 civilians attempting to flee western Mosul have been killed since May 26, including at least 204 over three days last week alone,” the statement said.

“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families – there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts.”

Iraqi forces retook eastern Mosul from IS in January and last month began a push to capture the remaining parts of the city. Rights groups and monitors say some 200,000 people are trapped in western Mosul.

There are also reports that several May 31 air strikes from the anti-IS coalition killed between 50 and 80 people in the IS-controlled Mosul neighborhood, Zanjili. Zeid said the UN was also investigating these killings.

The UN rights chief urged the coalition “to ensure that their operations comply fully with international humanitarian law and that all possible measures are taken to avoid the loss of civilian lives.”

Watch video01:42

Civilians killed while fleeing ‘IS’ in Mosul

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Shiite militants push IS out of key Iraqi town of Baaj

The pro-Baghdad Popular Mobilization Forces have driven the “Islamic State” out of the Iraqi town of Baaj, cutting one of the group’s supply lines between Mosul and Syria. The Shiite fighters are endorsed by Iran.

Irak Angriffe auf IS-Militante am Rande von Al-Baaj (Reuters/Stringer)

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‘IS’ digs its heels in as Iraqi troops advance in Mosul

As the Iraqi army begins to surrounding them, the so-called “Islamic State” jihadist group has responded with a campaign of car bombs and sniper fire. Mosul was the terrorists’ last urban stronghold. (28.05.2017)

US more than doubles bounty for ‘Islamic State’ leader

Iraqi forces capture key bridge in push to liberate Mosul

Iraqi air force backed the militia’s push into the border town, the Popular Mobilization group announced on Sunday.

The victory over the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) fighters was a “big and qualitative achievement” in the larger operation to retake the city of Mosul from the IS jihadis, said deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The border town is located west of Mosul, and its loss cuts a key IS supply lines connecting the city with Syria. Baghdad’s troops launched the offensive to liberate Mosul eight months ago and uprooted the jihadi militia from several parts of the city. However, IS forces are still holding the western section of their last remaining urban stronghold in Iraq.

Iranian advisors active in Syria and Iraq

Despite the US backing, the anti-IS coalition was forced to slow down its efforts while facing car bombs and sniper fire in the densely populated areas of Mosul.

Karte Irak ENG

The retaking of Baaj comes several weeks after the Popular Mobilization Forces started their push to reclaim the area near the Syrian border. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding in the region.

While the Shiite-dominated militia nominally answers to Baghdad, it is supported by the Shiite power Iran. Tehran provided training and military advisors to the Iraqi group, and also helped organize thousands of Shiite fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in Syria.

dj/sms (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)

‘IS’ digs its heels in as Iraqi troops advance in Mosul

As the Iraqi army begins to surrounding them, the so-called “Islamic State” jihadist group has responded with a campaign of car bombs and sniper fire. Mosul was the terrorists’ last urban stronghold.

Irak Kämpfe im Westen von Mosul (Reuters/Stringer)

Snipers and suicide bombers fighting for the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadist group targeted combatants and civilians alike in the Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday. The terrorists seemed determined to fight to the last amidst a government push to completely retake the city.

Mosul had been the last major IS stronghold in Iraq, but recent offenses have cornered the jihadists into select pockets of the old city. Despite this, they continued their campaign of suicide car bombings and snipers placed on rooftops to making the fighting difficult in the neighborhoods they control, already a challenge because of the narrow streets and dense civilian population.

Read more: Iraqi army launches operation to seize last ‘IS’ enclave in Mosul

There were “sporadic” clashes on Sunday, according to Baghdad, and at least two military officers were killed in fighting near the Tigris River in the city’s Shafaa neighborhood.

Karte Mossul ENGIS’ remaining strongholds (click to enlarge)

On Saturday, however, US-backed Iraqi forces were able to take control of key territory as they try to surround IS from three different directions. They were able to capture the Ibn Sina hospital, which is also in the Shafaa neighborhood, providing them access to a major medical complex that the terrorists have controlled since they swept through the city in 2014.

Since Friday, the government has been working to get civilians out of the targeted areas, dropping leaflets to alert citizens to “safe passages” where they could flee with the help of “guides, protectors and (transportation).”

US admits high non-combatant casualties

The push to protect civilians came as the US military was receiving heavy criticism for the amount of civilian deaths caused by its coalition against IS.

The Pentagon recently admitted that one of its airstrikes had killed 105 non-combatants in Mosul in March, the largest single loss of civilian life since the coalition began its bombing campaign.

Watch video01:08

The destruction in western Mosul

According to a military investigation, both Iraqi forces and US military advisors did not know there were so many people in the building that collapsed as a result of the strikes near an IS target. They were similarly unaware that IS had placed explosives at the site, the report said.

In an interview on Sunday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that “everything humanly possible” is done to avoid civilian casualties, but in this kind of asymmetrical conflict, it becomes “a fact of life” that innocents could die.

Read more: US plan to ‘annihilate IS’ raises questions over civilian toll, larger strategy

“We have not changed the rules of engagement,” Mattis clarified to the CBS program Face the Nation. “There is no relaxation of our intention to protect the innocent.”

Mattis laid the blame for the deaths in Mosul at the hands of IS, saying the way they had laid explosives under the building full of civilians illustrated their “callous disregard that is characterized by every operation they have run.”

es/rc (AP, AFP)

Watch video03:40

Battle for Mosul: Revina Shamdasani (UNHCR spokesperson) speaks to DW

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5 years and billions of dollars needed to rebuild Mosul, officials say

5 years and billions of dollars needed to rebuild Mosul, officials say

  • © Muhammad Hamed
  • Reuters
3 May 2017 | 18:17 GMT

The occupation by Islamic State and the battle to oust the extremists have reduced much of Mosul to rubble. A five-year plan to get the war-torn city back on its feet has been drawn up, but finding the money is proving to be a problem.

The airport, the train station and the university are among the many buildings in Iraq’s once-proud, second-biggest city that lie in ruins. Over 100,000 precious manuscripts from the university were looted or destroyed by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) who considered them blasphemous, according to activists.

In November 2016, the Iraqi government announced plans to start rebuilding Mosul after the city’s liberation from the militants. Local officials are currently surveying the damage in liberated eastern Mosul.

“After Mosul is fully liberated, we need a working plan to restore things to the way they were before 2014 when Islamic State took over,” Noureldin Qablan, deputy chairman of the Nineveh provincial council, told Reuters.

Qablan said that he and a group of 33 other Nineveh councilors have already started planning Mosul’s reconstruction, which will be carried out in phases. The first six months will focus on bringing back power, security and running water, which will be following by a two-year rebuilding process.

The plan also includes a two-year reconciliation process and a 30-month drive aimed at attracting outside investment.

But all this will cost billions of dollars, which the Iraqi government is unlikely to be able to afford. Even repairing houses at a cost of around $5,000 apiece will stretch the budget.

“Honestly, we are not getting enough support. What has been allocated to Nineveh in 2017 was 52 billion Iraqi dinars ($44.5 million), which is a very small sum for a province this size,” Qablan told Reuters.

“In 2013, we were allocated 738 billion dinars, yet after all this destruction we get just 52. It is very hard to reach our goals with this sum, so we are counting on foreign grants.”

The Nineveh council hopes to attract international aid from organizations such as the United Nations. Italy is already helping to rebuild a hospital.

And the threat from IS remains.

Iraqi troops, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes and Shia and Kurdish militias, have liberated the whole eastern side of Mosul in a six-month offensive that began in October. But securing the west of the city, in particular the northwest and the Old City, where the militants are currently holed up, has been proving a problem as firmly-entrenched militants have put up fierce resistance through booby traps, sniper fire and mortar shells filled with toxic gas.

IS militants are still holding out in the historic Grand al-Nuri Mosque, where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first declared his so-called caliphate in 2014.

Hundreds of civilians are being killed as the confrontation between IS and Iraqi forces intensifies, and the UN has warned of a possible “humanitarian catastrophe” if the siege conditions continue.

ISIS executing civilians for trying to flee Mosul – eyewitnesses

ISIS executing civilians for trying to flee Mosul – eyewitnesses
Islamic State militants have been killing scores of civilians attempting to flee the war-torn city of Mosul in Iraq, according to eyewitness reports, with as many as 50 people being put to death in the latest mass execution.

Fighting in western Mosul has been intensifying in recent weeks as Iraqi troops, backed by Shia and Kurdish militias as well as airstrikes from the US-led coalition, close in on the Old City, a stronghold of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

As it loses territory, IS has told the local population that the approaching forces will kill or imprison them in an attempt to deter people fleeing. But when this doesn’t work, the militant group has turned to mass executions of would-be refugees. In the latest incident, 50 civilians were executed in western Mosul on Saturday, a local source told Alsumaria News.

Another witness, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters he found a relative’s mutilated body left hanging on an electric pole in the Tenek district, along with three others who tried to flee.

“Their appearance was shocking. We weren’t able to get them down and they have been there for two days,” he said.

A woman who successfully made it out of IS-occupied territory described her narrow escape.

“They took our bags thinking there was gold or money in them and as they were busy checking the contents, we fled through the houses taking advantage of the pitch darkness,” she told Reuters. “I fear those families who stayed in Daesh’s [pejorative term for IS] grip met a terrible fate.”

The Kurdistan Regional Security Council has said that 140 civilians were killed trying to flee IS-controlled areas on Monday and Tuesday.

US military sources say that IS is using the civilian population as human shields in order to maximize casualties, giving the militants a propaganda boost.

“They brought the civilians back into the fight,” Brig. Gen. John Richardson, a coalition deputy commanding general in Irbil, told the Stars and Stripes, adding that Iraqi soldiers had recently found nine headless bodies at a traffic circle, along with a sign threatening more killings if anyone else tried to flee. “They’re actually telling them to stay in the neighborhoods.”

Some 150,000 civilians have fled the city, with a further 600,000 still in Mosul, 400,000 of whom are trapped in the embattled Old City, according to the United Nations.

But while the US-led forces might shift the responsibility for civilian casualties onto IS, scores have been reportedly dying in coalition airstrikes as well. In March, a Pentagon spokesman admitted the US “probably had a role” in a single bombing that killed around 240 people alone.

“You know that at the end of the missile there are four flaps, on that cartridge was written ‘made in USA’,” one man, who lost his wife and whose four-year-old child was left badly disfigured in separate airstrikes, told RT.