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Iraqi troop advance puts civilians on Mosul frontline

But as they approach the city itself, still home to more than a million people, the advancing forces are pushing the frontlines into villages like Tub Zawa where residents had until this week stayed put. Photograph: (Reuters)

Reuters Iraq Oct 26, 2016, 12.05 PM (IST)

White flags flying from their radio antennas, the pickup trucks laden with refugees and a few precious livestock snaked out of Tub Zawa after a day of heavy bombardment drove Islamic State fighters from the village on Mosul's eastern edge.

Around 700 people fled the village early on Tuesday, escaping the military operation to recapture Iraq's second biggest city from the jihadists who have controlled it for nearly two and a half years.

In the first 10 days of the Mosul campaign, the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by US-led air forces and troops have made steady gains through often depopulated villages east and south of Mosul.

But as they approach the city itself, still home to more than a million people, the advancing forces are pushing the frontlines into villages like Tub Zawa where residents had until this week stayed put.

That will make the fighting more difficult and deadly, and prompted a senior United Nations official in Iraq to say an exodus from Mosul, and a potential humanitarian crisis could be only a few days away.

Tub Zawa, close to the main road into Mosul from the east, is one of the first populated villages reached by Iraqi counter-terrorism forces after they cleared Islamic State last week from a Christian region which has been largely empty since 2014.

Abdul Bassit, an elderly shepherd from the predominantly Sunni Arab settlement, said he had sheltered for hours with a dozen relatives under the stairs of their house on Monday while the military bombarded the village for hours with mortars and air strikes, and the jihadists responded with car bombs.

When they fled their homes the next day, they took only their most important possessions with them, which in many cases was livestock.

Women and small children shared space with sheep, goats, calves and chickens in the beds of pickup trucks on their journey to a camp for displaced people at the Kurdish-controlled town of Hassan Sham, further east.

So far the number of people displaced since the Mosul campaign was formally launched on October 17 is relatively modest - the International Organization for Migration says just over 10,000 people have been uprooted.

Those who head into Kurdish areas, like the Tub Zawa families, are checked by Kurdish peshmerga on the road linking Mosul to the Kurdish city of Erbil, about 75 km (45 miles) away.

On Tuesday, the villagers parked their cars and pickup trucks along the Erbil highway, as the peshmerga sorted through them. Women and children were bussed quickly to the camp but men sat in vehicles for hours waiting to undergo security screening.

Some of them took the opportunity to shave thick beards they say Islamic State forced them to grow after seizing large swathes of northern and western Iraq in a bid to build a modern-day caliphate. Tufts of dark facial hair littered the road under one of the vehicle's side-view mirrors.

"It was hell," said Abdul Bassit, describing life under the hardline Sunni Islamists. Smoking was forbidden and carried a punishment of 70 lashes, he said. Dress was strictly regulated, cell phones prohibited and women prevented from leaving the house.

The villagers said Islamic State fighters did not speak to them much and they avoided contact as much as possible. Most of them were Iraqi, they said, but one man recalled meeting a Kuwaiti fighter.

"We would see them in the mosque for the five daily prayers, but that was about it," he said. The fighters were either killed in Monday's clashes with government forces or fled deeper into Islamic State-held territory.

Ahmed Kamel, 31, said the number of Islamic State fighters inside Mosul - estimated by the Iraqi military at up to 6,000 - was small but their insurgent tactics would make it difficult for the 30,000-strong Iraqi force to rout them.

"It could take one month, one year, 10 days," he said of the offensive. "I don't know, but I hope it is 10 days."

Iraq's elite counter-terrorism forces, which are spearheading the offensive, are now just a few kilometres from Mosul. Beyond Tub Zawa, only Bazwaia village, and some military camps separate them from the city's eastern limits.

But the troops paused their advance on Tuesday, a senior commander told Reuters, waiting for the other US-backed forces to close in from the south and northeast.

While the soldiers regrouped, one villager recounted his experiences of life under the Sunni militants now preparing to battle for the city.

Sixty-eight-year-old Ghazi Fathi, sitting alone in the driver's seat of a beat up sedan, raised his stained white galabiya to reveal about a dozen crude stitches above his waist and a large bandage on the left side of his abdomen.

"They tortured me," he said of Islamic State, without explaining how. "They asked me if I was sheltering my Shi'ite neighbours and when I told them 'no' they accused me of lying."

Fathi, writhing in pain on Tuesday, called through his car window for medical aid and water but a peshmerga guard said he had to wait until security clearance was complete. That process did not appear to have started as the sun began to set.


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