MOSUL // A suicide bomber blew himself up on Friday among civilians fleeing Mosul’s Old City, where Iraqi forces are gaining ground against militants mounting a fierce but desperate defence.
Major Ahmed Hashem, an Iraqi army medic said 12 people were killed in the attack, which took place in the Mashahda neighbourhood of the Old City. More than 20 wounded, including women and children, were taken to a field hospital.
The definitive casualty count was not yet known as the attack site was not fully cleared, said a colonel in the army’s 16th infantry division. “The suicide bomber infiltrated a group of displaced people and blew himself up among them before reaching our troops,” he said.
In western Iraq, at least eight civilians and a soldier were killed by another suicide bomber in Habbaniyah, in the desert province of Anbar. He was one of a group of four suicide bombers who infiltrated a neighbourhood of Al Baghdadi, a town on the Euphrates River, police said. The army trapped three of the suicide bombers in a house and killed them by detonating their explosive belts with gunfire, but the fourth managed to stay hidden and blew himself up later in a crowd.
Around 100,000 civilians remain trapped with little food, water or medicine in the Old City of Mosul by ISIL militants using them as human shields. The security forces are on the lookout for Iraqi ISIL members attempting to flee the Old City death trap by blending in with the population, while the Chechen, French and other foreign jihadists stay behind to mount a suicidal last stand.
Iraqi forces battled their way along two streets that meet in the heart of Mosul’s Old City on Friday, aiming to open up routes for civilians to escape. The two roads cross in the centre of the Old City. When the troops reach this point, they will have isolated the remaining IS fighters in four separate pockets.
The elite Counter Terrorism Service is advancing along Al-Faruq Street, from north to south, and Nineveh Street, from east to west.
“The aim is to open ways for civilians to evacuate, we give them indications by loudspeaker when it’s possible,” an Iraqi military spokesman said.
American-trained urban warfare units are leading the fight in the maze of narrow alleyways of the Old City, the last district in the hands of the extremists, and Iraqi authorities are hoping to declare victory on Eid.
Military analysts say the advance has gathered pace since ISIL blew up the 850-year-old Grand Al Nuri mosque and its famous leaning minaret affectionately nicknamed Al Hadba, meaning “the hunchback”, on Wednesday. Its destruction has given troops more freedom in attack as they no longer need worry about damaging the ancient site.
It was in the Al Nuri mosque that ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, proclaimed its “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria three years ago.
According to Iraqi state news, 7,000 civilians were brought out of the Old City during the day. Some were injured, and some had been carried on army Humvees to rear positions where they were given bananas, biscuits, and water.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported an influx of wounded people to its trauma clinic in the west of the war-torn city on Friday morning.
The Iraqi government once hoped to take Mosul by the end of 2016, but the bloody campaign has dragged on as the militants reinforced positions in civilian areas, launched suicide car and motorbike bombs, laid booby traps and kept up barrages of sniper and mortar fire. The military said it had defused dozens of booby traps as troops advanced on Friday.
The area still under ISIL control comprises about two square kilometres along the western bank of the Tigris river which bisects Mosul.
The destruction of Al Nuri mosque has angered and saddened Iraqis.
The black flag of ISIL had flown from the 45-metre minaret since June 2014. Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi said the militants’ decision to blow up the mosque was an admission of defeat.
* Reuters and Agence France Presse