Blockage Tactics Complicate Fight for Key IS-Held Iraqi Town

41
Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 9:33 PM

If they stormed in with armor and airstrikes, they risked heavy casualties and might authorize the militants to flee. Gen. Abdel Ghani al-Asadi, the commander of the elite troops, chose a different approach: Encircle the strategic western town with a unhurried and methodical cordon, trapping the extremists inside.

As they advanced on the Islamic State-held town of Hit, Iraqi counterterrorism troops had to determine how to press the attack. If they stormed in with armor and airstrikes, they risked heavy casualties and might authorize the militants to flee.

Gen. Abdel Ghani al-Asadi, the commander of the elite troops, chose a different approach: Encircle the strategic western town with a unhurried and methodical cordon, trapping the extremists inside.

It'south a tactic that'south been used elsewhere to claw back Iraqi territory that was seized by the Islamic State grouping in 2014.

While the decision may have been more time-consuming, allowing the militants in Hit to dig in, lay defenses and launch attacks that initially also trapped tens of thousands of civilians, Iraqi forces believe the approach is a key to making their territorial gains adhere and reduce their casualties.

Six counterterrorism battalions pushed up from the W latest weekend to slice off Hit'south northern edge, zigzagging in the soft desert terrain and taking more than twelve hours to advance only a few kilometers (miles).

"We don't wish them to be able to flee," al-Asadi said, referring to the IS fighters. "We wish them to stay interior so we can finish them."

If the militants escaped, he said, they'd probably return and infiltrate the town once his men had moved on to the next battle.

Hit, in Anbar province W of the capital of Baghdad, sits along an IS supply line that links Iraqi territory controlled by the extremist grouping with its base in Syria. Executive in the Iraqi military and the U. S.-led coalition fighting IS believe that by clearing the town, they can construct on recent territorial gains in the vast province.

That'd move them closer to two major goals: isolating the IS-held city of Fallujah, forty miles (sixty-five kilometers) W of Baghdad, and linking up government forces in the W and the N in preparation for an eventual thrust on Mosul, Iraq'south second-largest city that also is held by the extremist group.

As Iraqi forces closed in on Hit, al-Asadi said he ordered the town'south main bridge over the Euphrates River destroyed by a coalition airstrike to unhurried the flight of IS fighters. In the days that followed, dozens of boats IS used were also destroyed by coalition bombs, the Pentagon said.

In the initial stage of the operation latest month, some IS militants sought to knit themselves further into the civilian fabric of the town. Fighters vanished from Hit'south main streets, occupying abandoned houses or forcing their way into homes where civilians were still living, according to residents who evacuated.

"They began emotional more and more into the narrow side streets and the civilian areas," one resident told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to defend the safety of relatives still trapped in Hit.

Al-Asadi said his men were increasingly finding fighters from the Islamic State grouping posing as civilian refugees.

"One of the ways we can tell is you can look they shaved their beards very quickly," al-Asadi said, smiling. "They've cuts from the razor on their faces."

Because tens of thousands of civilians were still interior Hit when the operation began, only about twenty coalition airstrikes per week were launched to clear territory, Iraqi commanders said.

By contrast, coalition jets conducted twenty airstrikes in a single day when Iraqi forces retook the northern town of Sinjar latest year — and more than sixty in the week it fell. But Sinjar was smaller than Hit, and nearly all civilians had left.

The trickle of civilians from Hit turned into a flood on Monday as a column of Humvees carrying elite Iraqi forces began rolling through agricultural neighborhoods and then into residential blocks. Thousands of civilians filled Hit'south northern main road, the only route left open.

A half-dozen Humvees escorted the initial wave of evacuating civilians, with elderly people in wheelchairs loaded onto the back of the vehicles. Troops shouted for children to stay within the tire tracks of the huge vehicles, and farm animals were prodded into that secure path as well.

A day earlier, dozens of bombs that'd been sown by militants along the road had been cleared by the troops.

While civilians were being loaded into trucks to be taken to a camp, one of the bombs exploded with a plume of orange smoke along the path they'd just traversed. Commanders said it'd been triggered prematurely and number one was hurt.

All the while, helicopter gunships circled above, firing into the town.

The evacuation further slowed the military operation, with dozens of vehicles and troops having to be pulled back from the front to control the crowd of civilians.

"They arrive toward our forces. They know that if they flee toward Daesh, they'll be shot," said Brig. Gen. Sami Khathan al-Aradi, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Al-Aradi admitted that the evacuation had brought military action to a close halt at times, but he well-known that "these are orders" from his fellow commanders.

"The streets are narrow. You can't move the civilians to the side because of all the roadside bombs," he said.

A 19-year-old named Athra, who asked that her latest title not be used in order to defend relatives still in IS-held territory, said she understood why the Iraqi forces were emotional slowly and deliberately around Hit and not allowing the militants to escape.

"They don't wish them to just return after the fighting is over," said Athra, who originally was from Ramadi and left Hit with her family when clashes broke out in the streets around her home.

She explained that many Anbar residents believe the rise of IS in Anbar province was facilitated by the large no of al-Qaida sympathizers who moved back in or remained in towns and villages after U. S. forces withdrew in two thousand-eleventh following the war.

"We don't wish the same thing to happen again," she said.

———

Associated Press writer Khalid Mohammed in Hit contributed to this report.

READ ALSO
Turkmenistan-South Asia Pipeline Gets $200M Investment

Turkmenistan-South Asia Pipeline Gets $200M Investment

Below an agreement signed Thursday in the Turkmen capital, the investment comes from Turkmenistan'south state gas company, Interstate Gas Systems of Pakistan, Afghan Gas Undertaking and India'south GAIL.

58
Battered EU Is Loser Again in Dutch Referendum on Ukraine

Battered EU Is Loser Again in Dutch Referendum on Ukraine

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU'south executive Commission, had warned ahead of Wednesday'south poll that a rejection of the deal "would open the door to a grand continental crisis." Such is the EU'south standing these days, however, that its warnings...

41
Icelandic Politician Says He'south the Country'south New PM

Icelandic Politician Says He'south the Country'south New PM

Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson told reporters that he'd secured President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson'south formal backing after his predecessor resigned because of embarrassing links to an offshore account.

62
Brazilian Police Probe Whether Water Utility Treats Sewage

Brazilian Police Probe Whether Water Utility Treats Sewage

Officer Marcelo Prudente says police investigators visited at minimum six of Rio'south main sewage treatment plants to get samples for testing. The plants are located on lagoons in western Rio close the Olympic Park and on the sewage-polluted Guanabara...

79