Sunday, October 30, 2016

5,000 Fighters Join Iraq-led Offensive to Retake Mosul From ISIS
Total number of anti-ISIS forces in push for Mosul now over 40,000, says Iraq military

Associated Press
Oct 30, 2016 4:47 PM ET

A Shia fighter for the Popular Mobilization Unit takes aim during an advance towards the village of Salmani, south of Mosul, on Sunday during the battle against ISIS to liberate the city of Mosul. Iraqi militia spokesmen said that some 5,000 fighters had joined their push to encircle the country's second largest city from the west. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of fighters flocked to join Iraq's state-sanctioned, Iran-backed Shia militias on Sunday, advancing to cut off Islamic State extremists holed up near Mosul in northern Iraq while bombers killed at least 17 people in Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad.

Militia spokesmen said that some 5,000 fighters had joined their push to encircle from the west the country's second-largest city of Mosul, the IS militants' last bastion in Iraq, which is linked by road to territory it holds in Syria.

Karim al-Nuri of the militias' umbrella group, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, and Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for unit member the Hezbollah Brigades, said that a total of some 15,000 Shia fighters were now participating in the battle.

The Iraqi military confirmed the figures, which, including army units, militarized police, special forces and Kurdish fighters would bring the total number of anti-IS forces in the offensive to over 40,000.

The two-week-old offensive to drive ISIS from Mosul had been long-anticipated, since the Sunni extremists stormed into the city in 2014 and drove out a much larger Iraqi force, albeit one that was demoralized from neglect and corruption.

Troops are now converging on the city from all directions, although most fighting is still taking place in towns and villages on Mosul's outskirts. The operation is expected to take weeks, if not months.

The Popular Mobilization Units say they will not enter Mosul itself and will instead focus on retaking Tal Afar, a town to the west that had a Shia majority before it fell to IS in 2014. They acknowledge having help from Iranian military advisers.

Iraqi forces moving toward the city have made uneven progress since the offensive began on Oct. 17. They are six kilometres from the edge of Mosul on the eastern front, where Iraq's special forces are leading the charge. But advances have been slower in the south, with government forces still 35 kilometres from the city.

The U.S. military estimates IS has 3,000 to 5,000 fighters inside Mosul and another 1,500-2,500 in the city's outer defensive belt. The total number includes around 1,000 foreign fighters.

Baghdad explosions kill 17, wounds over 60

In the hours following the announcement of Shia reinforcements, five explosions rocked predominantly Shia neighbourhoods of the capital, Baghdad, killing at least 17 people and wounding over 60, police said.

Police officials said the deadliest of the bombings, a parked car bomb, hit a popular fruit and vegetable market near a school in the northwestern Hurriyah area, killing at least 10 and wounding 34. Other attacks hit the northern Shaab neighbourhood, as well as traders' markets in the Topchi and Zataria areas as well as the poorer Sadr City district.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief reporters.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts. But ISIS has stepped up its attacks in response to the offensive in Mosul, and it was possible the group was targeting Shia areas in retaliation for the Mosul offensive.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force said it had landed a C-130 transport aircraft at Qayara air base, on the southern approach to Mosul, opening a key resupply route. ISIS forces had been leaving explosive booby-traps to slow the advance on Mosul, and the announcement suggested the airstrip was now cleared of such danger.

Turkey's Erdogan warns of Shia 'terrorizing'

Earlier, Turkey's president warned that his government will be closely monitoring the Shia militias' behaviour in northern Iraq and seek to safeguard the rights of ethnic Turkmens there.

In statements carried by the state-run Anadolu agency, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that the militia group could prompt a Turkish response if it "terrorizes" the Iraqi-Turkmen town of Tal Afar, where it is headed in its push around Mosul.

"Tal Afar is an entirely Turkmen town. If Hashd al-Shaabi starts terrorizing it, then our response will certainly be different," Erdogan said, referring to the militia umbrella group in Arabic.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey would respond if Shia fighters near the Iraqi-Turkmen town of Tal Afar 'terrorizes' the ethnic Turkmens that live there. (Yasin Bulbul/Associated Press)

The involvement of the Iranian-backed Shia militias has raised concerns that the battle for the Sunni-majority city could aggravate sectarian tensions. Rights groups have accused the militias of abuses against civilians in other Sunni areas retaken from ISIS, accusations the militia leaders deny.

At a camp on the outskirts of Kirkuk, some 160 kilometres from Mosul, around 600 displaced Sunni Turkmen families from Tal Afar were anxiously hoping ISIS will be driven from the city so they can head home soon.

Erdogan says Turkey soon will bring back death penalty

"I escaped because of IS," said Hussna Abbas, 75, who was comforting her grandson as residents reported ISIS was firing intermittently toward their camp, known as Yahyawa.

"They took one of my sons and they killed another one," she said. "God willing, God will return us to our homes."

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