Iraq: New Islamic State escape routes to Syria are shut

Mosul battle: ISIS' resistance puts heavy toll on Iraqi forces
An Iraqi special forces soldiers walks through a house destroyed in an airstrike during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq March 2, 2017

Iraq’s paramilitary Shiite militias captured the northern province of Hatra on Thursday, cutting off several desert tracks used by Islamic State to move between Iraq and Syria, sources close to the militias said.

At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq.

However, ISIS’s territory is shrinking rapidly since last year as the US-led coalition, the Turkish-backed forces, and the Russian-backed Assad regime forces have fierce fights against its forces in both Syria and Iraq.

The United States is providing air and ground support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces trying to dislodge the hardline group from Mosul.

Iraqi forces captured the eastern side of Mosul in January after 100 days of fighting and launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris river on Feb. 19.

Islamic State militants retreated across the Tigris river to western districts of Mosul, where they are using mortars, sniper fire, booby traps and suicide car bombs to fight the offensive carried out by a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, regional Kurdish peshmerga fighters, and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.

New escape routes shut

The operations in Hatra are carried out by Popular Mobilisation, a coalition of Iranian-trained militias of Shi’ite volunteers formed in 2014 to fight Islamic State.

However, they have been accused of committing ethnic crimes against Iraqi Sunni residents and of displacing Sunni communities to achieve their goals on demographic change.

The militias on Wednesday dislodged Islamic State from the ancient ruins of Hatra, which suffered great destruction under the militants’ three-year rule, a military spokesman said.

Hatra, a city that flourished in the first century AD, lies 125 km (80 miles) south of Mosul, where the militants have been fighting off a U.S.-backed offensive since October.

The militants are now surrounded in the northwestern part of Mosul, including the Old City and its landmark Grand al-Nuri Mosque from where their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared in mid-2014 a caliphate also spanning parts of Syria.

Mosul is by far the largest city that had fallen to the militants in both countries. The density of the population is slowing the advance of Iraqi forces.

Hatra is also located west of Hawija, a region north of Baghdad still under Islamic State control.

Popular Mobilisation, which operates with the approval of Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government, said on Tuesday the Hatra campaign aims at cutting off Islamic State’s routes between Hawija, Mosul and eastern Syria.