Up to 900 jihadists killed in Mosul battle, US says

An Iraqi soldier stands next to detained men accused of being Islamic State fighters, at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq
PHOTO: Reuters

ARBIL, Iraq - The United States said Thursday that up to 900 Islamic State group jihadists have been killed in the offensive to retake Iraq's Mosul, as camps around the city filled with fleeing civilians.

Iraqis who fled their homes expressed joy at escaping IS's brutal rule as they were given shelter and assistance, in some cases reuniting with relatives they had not seen in more than two years.

The offensive, launched on October 17, is seeing tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters advancing on Mosul from the south, east and north in a bid to retake the last major Iraqi city under IS control.

Backed with air and ground support from a US-led coalition, federal forces allied with Kurdish peshmerga fighters have taken a string of towns and villages in a cautious but steady advance.

General Joseph Votel, who heads the US military's Central Command, told AFP on Thursday that the offensive was inflicting a heavy toll on the jihadists.

"Just in the operations over the last week and a half associated with Mosul, we estimate they've probably killed about 800-900 Islamic State fighters," Votel said in an interview.

There are between 3,500 and 5,000 IS jihadists in Mosul and up to another 2,000 in the broader area, according to US estimates.

The battle for Mosul

  • An Iraqi soldier stands next to detained men accused of being Islamic State fighters, at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq
  • Federal police forces launch a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants in south of Mosul
  • US Brigadier General Rick Uribe talks to reporters in Baghdad's Joint Operations Center on October 26, 2016. As Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga units close in on Mosul, US military officials offered a quick glimpse of the facility to highlight how coalition intelligence and air power is helping the Iraqis push the Islamic State group from Iraq.
  • Newly displaced people sit at check point in Qayyara, east of Mosul
  • A woman returns to her village after it was liberated from Islamic State militants, south of Mosul in Qayyara
  • raqi refugees who fled Mosul, the last major Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, due to the Iraqi government forces offensive to retake the city, look from behind a fence at the UN-run Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria's Hasakeh province, on October 25, 2016.
  • A newly displaced young man carries a boy as he walks towards a check point in Qayyara
  • A Kurdish Peshmerga helps an internally displaced girl upon her arrival at Al Khazar camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul.
  • A newly displaced man carries a boy at check point in Qayyara
  • The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Stephane Dujarric told reporters that almost 9,000 people are internally displaced as a result of the Mosul military operation in Iraq. Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said the military operations to retake Mosul could spark the largest humanitarian crisis in 2016 as the security situation in the area restrains aid agencies' ability to deliver help.
  • A newly internally displaced man carries his nephew as he stands beside tents upon his arrival at Al Khazar camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul.
  • A newly internally displaced child stands at Al Khazar camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul
  • A newly internally displaced man is seen at Al Khazar camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul, Iraq October 26, 2016.
  • A newly internally displaced girl stands upon their arrival at Al Khazar camp near Hassan Sham, east of Mosul
  • Federal police forces take part in an operation against Islamic State militants in south of Mosul
  • An Iraqi soldier stands next to a detained man accused of being an Islamic State fighter, at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq
  • A Kurdish peshmerga fighter takes up a position as they clear Fadiliya village in Nawaran, north of Mosul, as part of their offensive to drive Islamic State from Mosul
  • An Iraqi special forces soldier is seen inside a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in Bazwaya, east of Mosul
  • This file photo taken on October 21, 2016 shows forces from Iraq's elite Rapid Response Division, which is at the forefront of the southern advance on Mosul, firing a mortar near the village of Tall al-Tibah, some 30 kilometres south of the jihadist-held city. The Rapid Response Division has emerged as a key assault force in the country's war against jihadists.
  • An Iraqi special forces soldier looks inside the entrance of a tunnel used by Islamic State militants inside a restaurant in Bazwaya, east of Mosul

The offensive has so far been concentrated in towns and villages around Mosul, with Iraqi forces later expected to breach city limits and engage the jihadists in street-to-street fighting.

Aid workers have warned of a major humanitarian crisis when fighting begins in earnest for Mosul, which is home to more than a million people, but thousands have already been fleeing surrounding areas.

Iraq's ministry of displacement and migration said Thursday that more than 11,700 people had been displaced since the operation began.

"There's been quite a dramatic upturn in the last few days. As the Iraqi troops get closer to Mosul, more people are getting displaced, there are more populated areas," said Karl Schembri, regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

At a camp in Khazir, about mid-way between Mosul and the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil, Massud Ismail Hassan peered through a chainlink fence, looking for family members as peshmerga fighters registered the displaced.

"Once all these procedures are finished we will be able to give them food and drink and blankets we brought with us," he said.

Other families had already found each other, and tearful relatives clutched hands through the links of the fence.

Saddam Dahham, who lived under IS control in a village near Mosul for more than two years, fled to Khazir with his wife and their three children.

"We were not allowed to smoke, to use phones, not allowed to watch TV and we had to let our beards grow long," the 36-year-old said.

One of the first things he did after arriving at the camp was joyfully shave the "heavy thing dangling from my chin," Dahham said.

"I'm finally going to resume a normal life," the former truck driver said.

Schembri said the Norwegian Refugee Council, other aid agencies and the United Nations were planning for 200,000 people to be displaced in the next few days, though it may not reach that figure.

If anything close to 200,000 people are displaced in the immediate future, there will be a major shortage of places in camps.

"In terms of... camp facilities, there are only spaces available for 60,000" people, Schembri said.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday accused Kurdish authorities of arbitrarily detaining fleeing men and boys over 15 for indefinite periods as they checked them for possible ties to IS.

Kurdish authorities "are ignoring basic due process guarantees," said Lama Fakih, HRW's deputy Middle East director. "No one should be detained unless there is reason to suspect them personally of criminal activity." After seizing control of large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in mid-2014, IS declared a cross-border "caliphate", imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law and committed widespread atrocities.

Its rule was especially harsh for religious minorities and on Thursday two Yazidi women activists who survived a nightmare ordeal at the hands of IS won the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov human rights prize.

Nadia Murad and Lamia Haji Bashar have become figureheads for the effort to protect the Yazidis, against whom IS pursued a brutal campaign of massacres as well as enslavement and rape.