Iraqi election commission says Kirkuk voting stations under siege, staff inside

The head of Iraq's Independent Higher Election Commission Riyadh al-Badran speaks during a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

By Ulf Laessing

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk were on Wednesday besieging several polling stations containing election staff, four days after a national vote, the head of the electoral commission said.

Riyadh al-Badran said the gunmen, who he did not identify, were putting pressure on the commission to change the election results in the multi-ethnic region.

“The employees of the commission are in a hostage situation,” he said, calling on authorities to provide protection.

The final nationwide results should be announced in the next two days, Badran said.

The initial results in Kirkuk were disputed by the Turkmen and Arab communities of the region which is also inhabited by a large Kurdish population.

The election commission said on Tuesday that initial results from Kirkuk indicated a win for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a historic Iraqi Kurdish party.

In October, Iraqi forces backed by Shi’ite militias dislodged Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who had taken control of Kirkuk city in 2014, preventing its capture by Islamic State militants who had overrun Iraqi army positions in northern and western Iraq.

The return of the Iraqi army to Kirkuk was greeted with relief by the Arab and Turkmen populations there.

Saturday’s elections were the first in Iraq since the defeat of Islamic State last year by Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

Initial nationwide results showed a surprise victory for the bloc that supports populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite not aligned with Iran who campaigned on a nationalist platform, tapping into public resentment against widespread corruption and huge social disparities.

A tally by Reuters of provincial results announced over the past three days shows Sadr’s list leading, followed by Amiri, a close ally of Iran, and then outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was holding talks with politicians in Baghdad to promote the formation of a new cabinet which would have Iran’s approval, two people familiar with the political process underway said.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Iraq forces advance in Mosul but civilian toll mounts

Iraqi forces inspect hospital in Mosul after clashes with ISIS

By John Davison and Stephen Kalin

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces fought their way into more districts of Mosul but advances in the city’s southeast were being slowed by Islamic State’s use of civilians for cover, military officials said on Tuesday.

The United Nations said civilian casualties had streamed into nearby hospitals in the last two weeks as fighting intensified in the jihadist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.

Advances by elite forces in the city’s east and northeast have picked up speed in a new push since the turn of the year, and U.S.-backed forces have for the first time reached the Tigris river, which bisects the city.

“They entered Hadba (district) today. There is a battle inside the city,” Lt-Colonel Abbas al-Azawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi army’s 16th division, said.

Seizing control of Hadba, a large district, would likely take more than a day, and Islamic State (IS) were deploying suicide bombers, he added.

Recapturing Mosul after more than two years of Islamic State rule would probably spell the end of the Iraqi side of the group’s self-declared caliphate, which spans areas of Iraq and Syria.

Forces in the city’s eastern and northeastern districts, and in particular the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), have made rapid gains in past days.

Better defenses against militant car bombs and improved coordination among the advancing troops had helped put Islamic State on the back foot, U.S. and Iraqi military officers said.

“Every day the Iraqi Security Forces go forward and every day the enemy goes backward or underground,” U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the coalition, told reporters in Erbil in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.


But fighting in neighbourhoods in the southeast has been tougher.

“The challenge is that they (IS) are hiding among civilian families, that’s why our advances are slow and very cautious,” Lieutenant-Colonel Abdel Amir al-Mohammedawi, a spokesman for the rapid response units of Iraq’s federal police, told Reuters.

Mohammedawi said rapid response units and Iraqi army units had fought their way into the Palestine and Sumer districts in the last day, but that Islamic State fighters were firing at civilians trying to flee.

“The families, when they see Iraqi forces coming, flee from the areas controlled by Daesh (Islamic State) towards the Iraqi forces, holding up white flags, and Daesh bomb them with mortars and Molotov cocktails, and also shoot at them.

“Whenever they (IS) withdraw from a district, they shell it at random, and it’s heavy shelling,” he said.

Col. Dorrian said militant fighters were hiding in mosques, schools and hospitals, using civilians as human shields.

The United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said nearly 700 people had been taken to hospitals in cities in Kurdish-controlled areas outside Mosul in the last week, and more than 817 had required hospital treatment a week earlier.

“Trauma casualties remain extremely high, particularly near frontline areas,” OCHA said.

The U.S.-backed operation to drive the ultra-hardline militants from Mosul began in October and has recaptured villages and towns surrounding the city, and most of Mosul’s eastern half.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta in Erbil; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Richard Lough)

Islamic State attacks Iraqi soldiers in Mosul

Iraqi forces backed by tribal militias during battle to retake a village from the Islamic State on the eastern bank of the river Tigris, Iraq

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State militants attacked Iraqi soldiers near a hospital in southeast Mosul on Wednesday, an army officer and the jihadist group’s new agency said, trying to repel the army’s deepest advances of the seven-week Mosul campaign.

The fighting came a day after the army’s operations commander for Mosul said soldiers surged into the city and took over the Salam hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris river which divides eastern and western Mosul.

Tuesday’s rapid advance marked a change in military tactics after more than a month of grueling fighting in the east of the city, in which the army has sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block.

But it left the attacking forces exposed, and the Islamic State news agency Amaq said on Wednesday some of them were surrounded. It said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the hospital, killing 20 soldiers. Eight armored personnel carriers were also destroyed in the fighting, Amaq said.

There was no official Iraqi military comment on the fighting but the army officer, whose forces were involved in the clashes, said they had come under multiple attacks by suicide car bombers in the Wahda district where the hospital is located.

“We managed to make a swift advance on Tuesday in al-Wahda but it seems that Daesh fighters were dragging us to an ambush and they managed later to surround some of our soldiers inside the hospital, he told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

He said an armored regiment and counter terrorism units, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, were sent to support the stranded troops early on Wednesday and had opened up a route out of the neighborhood.

“They have secured the position, evacuated the wounded and pulled out the destroyed military vehicles from around the hospital,” he said, adding that they were coming under fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Amaq said it attacked the relief convoy in Sumer district, south of Wahda near the outer edge of the city.

Iraqi forces have been battling for seven weeks to crush Islamic State in Mosul. The city was seized by the militants in 2014 and is the largest in Iraq or Syria under their control.

Defeating Islamic State in Iraq’s biggest northern city would help roll back the group’s self-styled caliphate over large parts of both countries.

(Additional reporting by Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Mosul residents fear cold and hunger of winter siege

Iraqi people collect water in Mosul, Iraq,

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – No food or fuel has reached Mosul in nearly a week and the onset of rain and cold weather threatens a tough winter for more than a million people still in Islamic State-held areas of the city, residents said on Saturday.

Iraqi troops waging a six-week-old offensive against the militants controlling Mosul have advanced into eastern city districts, while other forces have sealed Mosul’s southern and northern approaches and 10 days ago blocked the road west.

But their advance has been hampered by waves of counter-attacks from the ultra-hardline Islamists who have controlled the city since mid-2014 and built a network of tunnels in preparation for their defense of north Iraq’s largest city.

The slow progress means the campaign is likely to drag on throughout the winter, and has prompted warnings from aid groups that civilians face a near complete siege in the coming months.

A trader in Mosul, speaking by telephone, said no new food or fuel supplies had reached the city since Sunday.

Despite attempts by the militants to keep prices stable, and the arrest last week of dozens of shopkeepers accused of hiking prices, the trader said food had become more expensive and fuel prices had tripled.

“We’ve been living under a real state of siege for a week,” said one resident of west Mosul, several miles (km) from the frontline neighborhoods on the east bank of the Tigris river.

“Two days ago the electricity generator supplying the neighborhood stopped working because of lack of fuel. Water is cut and food prices have risen and it’s terribly cold. We fear the days ahead will be much worse”.

A pipeline supplying water to around 650,000 people in Mosul was hit during fighting this week between the army and Islamic State. A local official said it could not be fixed because the damage was in an area still being fought over.

Winter conditions will also hit the nearly 80,000 people registered by the United Nations as displaced since the start of the Mosul campaign. That number excludes many thousands more who were forcibly moved by Islamic State, or fled from the fighting deeper into territory under its control.


Islamic State authorities, trying to portray a sense of normality, released pictures which they said showed a Mosul market on Friday. It showed a crowd of people and a stall selling vegetable oil and canned food but no fresh produce.

They also said they carried out several counter attacks in the last 24 hours against Iraqi troops in eastern Mosul and the mainly Shi’ite Popular Mobilisation forces who have taken territory to the west of the city.

Amaq news agency, which is close to Islamic State, said they retook half of the Shaimaa district in southeast of the city on Friday, destroyed four army bases in the eastern al-Qadisiya al-Thaniya neighborhood and seized ammunition from fleeing soldiers in al-Bakr district, also in the east.

A source in the Counter Terrorism Services, which are spearheading the army offensive, said Islamic State exploited the bad weather and cloud cover, which prevented air support from a U.S.-led international coalition.

He said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived.

“This is not the first time it happens. We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said.

Amaq also said Islamic State fighters waged attacks on Saturday against the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units near the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, showing footage of two damaged vehicles, one with interior ministry markings on it.

A spokesman for the militias said those attacks had been repelled. “Daesh attacked at dawn to try to control the village Tal Zalat,” said Karim Nouri. “Clashes continued for two hours, until Daesh withdrew, leaving bodies (of dead fighters) behind.”

In Baghdad, a car bomb blew up in a crowded market in the center of the city on Saturday, killing seven people and wounding 15, police and medical sources said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic State fighters have stepped up attacks in the Iraqi capital and other cities since the start of the Mosul operations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched the Mosul offensive on Oct. 17, aiming to crush Islamic State in the largest city it controls in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The campaign pits a 100,000-strong U.S.-backed coalition of army troops, special forces, federal police, Kurdish fighters and the Popular Mobilisation forces against a few thousand militants in the city.

Defeat would deal a heavy blow to Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, announced by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Mosul mosque two years ago.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Clelia Oziel)

Iraqi forces preparing advance on south Mosul

captured Islamic State tank

By John Davison and Dominic Evans

SOUTH OF MOSUL/BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces are preparing to advance toward Mosul airport on the city’s southern edge to increase pressure on Islamic State militants fighting troops who breached their eastern defenses, officers said on Thursday.

The rapid response forces, part of a coalition seeking to crush the jihadists in the largest city under their control in Iraq or Syria, took the town of Hammam al-Alil, just over 15 km (10 miles) south of Mosul, on Monday.

Officers say they plan to resume their advance north, up the western bank of the Tigris River towards the city of 1.5 million people who have lived under the ultra-hardline Sunni Islamists for more than two years.

More than three weeks after the U.S.-backed campaign to retake Mosul was launched, the city is almost surrounded by the coalition of nearly 100,000 fighters. But troops have entered only a handful of neighborhoods in the east of the city.

“We need to put wider pressure on the enemy in different areas,” said Major-General Thamer al-Husseini, commander of the elite police unit which is run by the Shi’ite-controlled Interior Ministry.

He said operations would resume within two days.

Lieutenant-Colonel Dhiya Mizhir said the target was an area overlooking Mosul airport, which has been rendered unusable by Islamic State to prevent attackers using it as a staging post for their offensive.

Army officers told Reuters in September the militants had moved concrete blast walls onto the runway to prevent planes from landing there.

Satellite pictures released by intelligence firm Stratfor also showed they had dug deep trenches in the runways and destroyed buildings to ensure clear lines of sight for defenders and to prevent advancing forces from using hangars or other facilities.

On the southern front, security forces took cover behind a mound of earth and fired at Islamic State positions from armored gun turrets.

The village of Karama was mostly deserted apart from a handful of residents and a few dozen Iraqi forces. A cement factory they recaptured three days ago was battered by gunfire.

“They used car bombs as we moved in and this street was heavily mined, but the battle wasn’t hard,” said 19-year-old recruit Abdel Sattar.


Separate forces advancing on the eastern side of the Tigris targeted two villages on Thursday on the edge of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, a military statement said.

Troops from the Ninth Armoured Division took the village of Abbas Rajab, four km east of Nimrud, and raised the Iraqi flag.

The Iraqi government says Nimrud was bulldozed last year as part of Islamic State’s campaign to destroy symbols which the Sunni Muslim zealots consider idolatrous. It would be the first such site to be recaptured from Islamic State.

Counter terrorism forces and an armored division fighting in the east of the city have been battling to hold on to half a dozen districts they surged into a week ago.

They have been hit by waves of attacks by Islamic State units, including snipers, suicide bombers, assault fighters and mortar teams, who have used a network of tunnels under the city and civilian cover in the narrow streets to wear them down in lethal urban warfare.

Residents contacted by telephone on Thursday said aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition supporting the Iraqi forces were circling the skies above eastern Mosul. They heard the sound of heavy clashes, artillery and mortar fire.

The militants were hitting back, they said. “Daesh (Islamic State) fighters were firing mortar bombs from a garden next to us which they had taken from a Christian,” one person said.

“They were bombarding the Zahra neighborhood where the Iraqi forces are. The war planes hit back with small rockets and destroyed the mortar and killed three of them,” he said, adding he had moved his family to another district.

Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces have been fighting in Zahra for a week, sometimes gaining ground only to be pushed back on the defensive. A senior CTS officer said on Thursday the neighborhood was fully under control.

“I’m very happy. I can’t believe that we’re over this terrible nightmare,” said another resident who returned to Zahra after taking refuge outside the city. “But we’re still frightened that Daesh might return”.

“We need more attacks on the other neighborhoods to liberate them and drive Daesh further away.”

The militants, who have ruled Mosul with ruthless violence, displayed bodies of at least 20 people across the city in the last two days – five of them crucified at a road junction – saying they had been killed for trying to make contact with the attacking forces, residents have said.

The United Nations has warned of a possible exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the city. So far 45,000 have been displaced, the International Organization for Migration said on Thursday.

Those figures exclude the thousands of people forced to accompany Islamic State fighters as human shields on their retreat into Mosul from towns and villages around the city.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Stamp)