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In ‘liberated’ Mosul, alarmed residents say danger remains

A child from from Mosul eats a sandwich while queuing with her family for permission to pass through a checkpoint in Bartella, Iraq on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. Hundreds of people arrive at the checkpoint every day either fleeing the ongoing violence in their home city or to visit their relatives elsewhere in Iraq. -AP 

MOSUL: The Iraqi forces that retook east Mosul from jihadists last month have moved on to their next battle, leaving a security vacuum that has residents complaining of a job half-done. The traffic jams in the streets and the crowds swarming the shops of the eastern neighborhoods that the Islamic State group controlled only weeks ago are deceptive, residents say.

“Everything looks like it’s back to normal but people know that bloodshed could be just around the corner and they live in constant fear,” said Omar, from a civil society group that has been trying to breathe life back into Iraq’s second city. “Everybody is talking about the liberation but Daesh (IS) is still here,” the 25-year-old said. “Their drones are flying above our heads, target our homes, our hospitals and our mosques.”

The Joint Operations Command that has been coordinating Iraq’s fightback since IS seized a third of the country in 2014 announced that the east bank of Mosul had been “fully liberated” on January 24. The Iraqi tricolor has replaced IS’s black flag above official buildings but the atmosphere is tense. “The suicide car bombs are back and that brings back memories of Daesh,” said Umm Sameer, a resident of Al-Zuhoor neighborhood.

On February 9, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a popular restaurant in east Mosul, injuring several people, according to officials. Contrary to some expectations, roughly three-quarters of the population of east Mosul stayed home and weathered the fighting that engulfed their neighborhoods when elite forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) punched into the city to take on the jihadists.

Fresh displacement
Yet some of them are leaving now, despite the fact that their areas have been officially liberated. Nuriya Bashir, in her sixties, left her home with her children and grandchildren this week. “My daughter’s husband was killed when a drone dropped a grenade. Daesh knew where he was that evening. The sleeper cells are everywhere,” she said, speaking from the Hasansham displacement camp east of Mosul where she and her family found shelter. “Just after the announcement that east Mosul was liberated, many displaced people left the camp to return to their homes,” said camp manager Rizqar Obeid. “But over the past few days, we have received around 40 families who couldn’t bear the situation in the city any longer,” he said.

There are security forces deployed in east Mosul but Umm Sameer accused them of “negligence” in their work. CTS fighters have now moved out to prepare for an assault on the city’s west bank. “We have handed over this part of the city to the army,” Abdulwahab Al-Saadi, a top CTS commander, told AFP. He admitted that insecurity remained in the east and blamed it on the fact that “jihadists on the west side continue to fire mortar rounds.”

IS still here
But weaponised drones and mortar fire are not the only security concerns for east Mosul residents. “The security shortcomings in east Mosul are obvious,” said Amer al-Bek, an activist with a local civil society group, criticizing “the lack of professionalism of some of the security forces.” Residents of four villages that lie just north of the city limits on the east bank of the Tigris have said that armed IS fighters are still in their midst.

“There are around 100 of them in the area, walking around freely with their weapons and combat gear,” said one resident who would not give his name for fear of retribution, adding that the jihadists had recently executed several villagers. “Why is the army not liberating our villages,” another resident asked. In the city proper, the number of residents who stayed on during the fighting made effective screening almost impossible.

The Institute for the Study of War said last week that the “inability to find a suitable hold force is also creating openings for IS to reinfiltrate, as shown by several attacks in eastern Mosul.” Besides the immediate impact on the lives of civilians, the think tank warned that such “re-infiltrations” could also affect upcoming efforts to retake the west side, “forcing the ISF (Iraqi security forces) to fight on two fronts to recapture the city.” — AFP

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