Iraqi forces advance toward IS towns in Mosul

Iraqi special forces take part in an operation against Islamic State militants in Kokjali, west of Mosul, Iraq November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudaini

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces moved closer on Wednesday to a town south of Mosul where aid groups and regional officials say Islamic State has executed dozens of prisoners.

A military statement said that security forces have advanced to the edge of Hammam al-Alil, a thermal water resort, after an elite unit breached the eastern limits of Mosul, the ultra-hard-line group’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.

The battle that started on Oct. 17 with air and ground support from a U.S.-led coalition is shaping up as the largest in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Mosul still has a population of 1.5 million people, much more than any of the other cities captured by Islamic State two years ago in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

The United Nations cited reports on Tuesday that Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL, is attempting to displace Hammam al-Alil’s estimated population of 25,000 for use as human shields and protection against air and artillery strikes.

“We have grave concerns for the safety of these and the tens of thousands of other civilians who have reportedly been forcibly relocated by ISIL in the past two weeks,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.

“The town, 15 km (9 miles) south of Mosul, had a pre-war population of 65, 000,” a local official said.

Aid organizations, local officials and Mosul residents have cited reports that IS has executed dozens of people in Hammam al-Alil and barracks nearby on suspicion of planning rebellions in and around Mosul to aid the advancing troops.

Abdul Rahman al-Waggaa, a member of the Nineveh provincial council, told reporters last week that most of the victims were former police and army members. The men were shot dead, he said, quoting the testimony of remaining residents of the villages and people displaced from the area.

Security forces advancing north on the western bank of the Tigris River recaptured five villages on Wednesday, the closest of them just 5 km (3 miles) from Hammam al-Alil, according to military statements.

Just across the river from those forces lie the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, which the Iraqi government says was bulldozed last year as part of Islamic State’s campaign to destroy symbols which the Sunni Muslim zealots consider idolatrous. Army troops heading north on that side of the Tigris have yet to reach the area.

Reuters/Omolayo