ISIS steps up suicide attacks as Mosul battle nears end

A member of the Iraqi forces walking past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in a tunnel that was used as a training centre by the militants, on March 1, 2017.
A member of the Iraqi forces walking past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in a tunnel that was used as a training centre by the militants, on March 1, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MOSUL (AFP) - The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has stepped up suicide attacks as it seeks to hold off Iraqi forces in the final stages of the battle for Mosul, a senior commander said on Monday (July 3).

More than eight months after the operation to retake Mosul was launched, ISIS has gone from fully controlling the city to holding a limited area on its western side.

"The enemy has been using suicide bombers, especially women, for the past three days in some of the neighbourhoods," said Staff Lieutenant General Sami al-Aridhi, a senior commander in the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).

"Before that, they were using snipers and bombs more," he said.

"There are still at least 200 fighters from the (ISIS) organisation" in Mosul, most of them foreigners, he said.

Iraqi forces have been closing in on the Old City in west Mosul for months, but its narrow streets and closely spaced buildings combined with a large civilian population made for an extremely difficult fight.

"The battle will end in five days to a week," Aridhi said.

Civilians fleeing the clashes are receiving treatment at a makeshift clinic in Mosul.

"People come from the Old City of Mosul, where fierce fighting is taking place. They're running away from (ISIS), running away from death, hunger and fear," said Nazar Salih, a doctor at the clinic.

Shahed Omar, a 20-year-old who fled the Old City, pointed to two children at the clinic.

"This one's father was killed, and that girl there, her father was killed as well," Omar said.

Security forces recaptured a series of nearby districts, cornering the extremists, and launched an assault inside the Old City on June 18.

They have since made significant progress.

But the impending end of the battle has given rise to the latest round of inter-service rivalry over who gets to declare it over.

Early victory celebrations

A statement attributed to the federal police chief circulated on Sunday, feting "their victory... which was achieved in the territory of Mosul", while police forces in the city celebrated with a band, flags and dancing.

But police commander Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat later issued a statement saying that while the mission of the federal police was over, other forces were still fighting and an announcement of victory would be made later by the Iraqi premier.

Iraq's Joint Operations Command on Monday said that the federal police were still fighting and had not captured all of their objectives.

"Federal police forces continue to fight fierce battles... on the southern front and are advancing toward their targets," the JOC said.

ISIS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes have since regained much of the territory they lost.

The recapture of Mosul will not however mark the end of the war against ISIS.

The extremist group holds territory elsewhere in Iraq as well as in neighbouring Syria, and has been able to carry out attacks in government-held areas.

ISIS has also inspired "lone wolf" attacks overseas.

Highlighting the major security challenges Iraq will face after Mosul, a suicide bomber attacked a camp for displaced people west of Baghdad on Sunday, killing 14 people and wounding 13, a police major and a doctor said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in Anbar province, but ISIS frequently carries out suicide bombings against civilians in Iraq.

The camp is located west of Ramadi, a city that was recaptured from ISIS along with Fallujah and other parts of Anbar province, but ISIS still controls areas closer to the Syrian border and carries out attacks in government-held territory.