Iraq’s Shi’ite paramilitaries launched an offensive on Friday to drive Islamic State from a desert region near the border with Syria as security forces fought the militants in the city of Mosul. Spokesman Karim al-Nouri said the target of the operation was the Qairawan and Baaj areas about 100 km west of Mosul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are advancing in their campaign to rout the militants from city. Seven months into the Mosul campaign, Islamic State has been driven from all but a handful of districts in the city’s western half including the Old City, where it is using hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields. The paramilitaries have been kept on the sidelines of the battle for the city of Mosul itself, but have captured a vast, thinly populated area to the southwest, cutting Islamic State supply routes to Syria. Islamic State is losing territory in both Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi military said in a statement its air force was supporting the operation by the paramilitary groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Unlike regular Iraqi security forces, the PMF does not receive support from the U.S.-led coalition, which is wary of Iran’s influence over the most powerful factions within the body. Officially answerable to the government in Baghdad, the PMF were formed when Islamic State overran around one third of Iraq including Mosul nearly three years ago and Iraqi security forces disintegrated. Nouri said PMF control over the border would assist Syrian government forces when they push toward the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa. On Friday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said their assault on Raqqa, the militants’ biggest urban stronghold, would begin soon and that they were awaiting weapons including armored vehicles from the U.S.-led coalition
Even before the expected battle for the ISIS-held Syrian city of Raqqa, a politician from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has said that Raqqa could be a part of a “democratic federal” system in northern Syria. “We in al-Raqqa Civil Council thank SDF that fulfilled its promise of liberation, and today we see that a big part of al-Raqqa countryside has been liberated by virtue of the martyrs’ sacrifices and the heroic resistance of SDF with all its factions”, a statement from RCC Co-Chair Layla Mostafa read. The YPG, the PYD’s military arm, is one of the groups fighting ISIS under the SDF banner in northern Syria. No decisions have been announced about what force will ultimately enter the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s so-called capital and the largest city it still controls in Syria. The spokesperson for the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS spoke to Rudaw TV in mid-March about Raqqa operations. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said in February the local Raqqa population should be supported by the international community, while “Turkey, US, and other elements can give logistic support to this city,” according to Anadolu Agency. Raqqa “should not be left in the hands of other terrorist organizations”, he added, referring to YPG.
U.S. Brigadier General Matthew Isler, Deputy Commanding General Operation Inherent Resolve, said he could not provide details of the military investigation into civilian deaths in western Mosul on March 17. The U.S. military said on Saturday a U.S.-led coalition strike had hit an area where residents and officials say as many as 200 civilians may have been killed as result of an air raid. The Iraqi military denied on Saturday reports that a U.S.-led coalition air strike resulted in mass civilian casualties in an area of ISIS-held Mosul, instead accusing the militant group of responsibility. Iraq’s military said on Sunday that 61 bodies were recovered from a collapsed building that ISIS had booby-trapped. An Iraqi military statement said investigations launched by an expert team found no sign showing the site of the collapse was subjected to an air strike.
U.S.-led Coalition members will hold a two-day meeting in Washington to discuss the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.The meeting of foreign ministers and senior leaders of the Global Coalition, hosted by U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, starts on Wednesday with participation of all members of the Coalition forces, a total numbering 68, the U.S. State Department said. An Iraqi delegation headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, will be attending the meeting in Washington. “The ministerial will include a detailed discussion of priorities for the Coalition’s multiple lines of effort, including military, foreign terrorist fighters, counterterrorist financing, counter-messaging, and stabilization of liberated areas, to increase the momentum of the campaign”, the State Department statement added.The ministers will also discuss the humanitarian crises in Iraq and Syria during the meeting, it added.