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Coalition huddles as forces inch towards Mosul

AFP , Tuesday 25 Oct 2016
Mosul
Smoke rises after an U.S. airstrike, while the Iraqi army pushes into Topzawa village during the operation against Islamic State militants near Bashiqa, near Mosul, Iraq October 24, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)
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Iraqi forces were inching to within striking distance of eastern Mosul Tuesday as defence chiefs from the US-led coalition met in Paris to review the offensive on the Islamist militant bastion.

With the Mosul battle in its second week, French President Francois Hollande called for the coalition against the Islamic State (IS) militants to prepare for the aftermath and the next stages of the war against IS.

Forces from the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) retook areas close to the eastern outskirts of Mosul, IS's last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

"On our front, we have advanced to within five or six kilometres (three to four miles) of Mosul," their commander, General Abdelghani al-Assadi, told AFP.

"We must now coordinate with forces on other fronts to launch a coordinated" attack on Mosul, he said, speaking from the Christian town of Bartalla.

Kurdish peshmerga forces are making gains on the northeastern front, but federal forces advancing from the south have some way to go before reaching the outskirts.

Meanwhile, thousands of men from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary umbrella group dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias were preparing for a push to the west of Mosul.

The Hashed leadership has ordered "us to assume the mission of liberating the Tal Afar district", said Jawwad al-Tulaibawi, spokesman for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, referring to an area west of the mainly Sunni city.

The Hashed's mission will be to "cut off and prevent the escape of (IS) towards Syria and fully isolate Mosul from Syria", Tulaibawi told AFP.

"We expect that it will be a difficult and fierce battle," he said.

Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed the Hashed's participation in the operation, as has Turkey, which has a military presence east of Mosul despite repeated demands by Baghdad to withdraw its forces.

Tensions have risen between Baghdad and Ankara, whose foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned Tuesday that if there is a threat to Turkey, "we are ready to use all our resources including a ground operation".

In Paris, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was meeting coalition counterparts, including Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, to review the war on IS after more than two years of air strikes, training and on-the-ground military advisers.

Besides coordinating their support for the forces closing in on Mosul, ministers will also attempt to iron out differences over priorities in the campaign.

France is keen to tackle the Islamist militants' Syria bastion Raqa, where a large number of French foreign fighters in IS ranks are stationed.

As the ministers met, Hollande warned that "the recapture is not an end in itself. We must already anticipate the consequences of the fall of Mosul."

"What is at stake is the political future of the city, the region and Iraq," Hollande said, calling for "all ethnic and religious groups" to have a say in the future running of Mosul.

He also called on the ministers to set out "the stages of the next operations" against IS, namely retaking Raqa.

While the Islamist militants in Mosul are outnumbered about one to 10, there are insufficient forces currently available to take on the estimated 3,000-4,000 IS fighters in Raqa.

Seeking to draw attention away from the Mosul campaign, IS has staged attacks in the northern city Kirkuk and western town of Rutba in recent days.

Islamist militants seized two neighbourhoods in Rutba, but officials said that as of Tuesday it was fully back in government hands.

Senior Iraqi and US military officials have reported that IS leaders are already trying to leave Mosul to reach the Syrian side of their "caliphate".

But a senior official close to Le Drian said a few hundred IS fighters recently moved in the opposite direction, reinforcing the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Islamist militants defending Mosul.

IS had shown increasing pragmatism in recent battles, tending to fall back in the face of superior firepower.

But with its claim to run a "caliphate" losing credibility with every new loss of territory, IS has mounted a fierce and well-organised resistance in the fight for Mosul.

Mosul is where IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the cross-border "caliphate" in June 2014, and its loss could spell the end of the group's days as a land-holding force in the Iraqi part.

In Moscow Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov equated US support for Iraqi efforts to recapture Mosul with Russian backing of a Syrian government offensive to seize rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

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