Iraqi forces see off Islamic State counter-attack in Mosu

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Displaced Iraqis flee their homes, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
By Isabel Coles and Ahmed Rasheed | MOSUL/SULAIMANIYA, IRAQ

Iraqi forces saw off an overnight Islamic State counter-attack near Mosul’s main government building hours after they recaptured it, a military official said on Wednesday, and troops sought to push the militants further back.

Islamic State fighters used car bombs in the assault, Major General Ali Kadhem al-Lami of the Federal Police’s Fifth Division told a Reuters correspondent near the site. “Today we’re clearing the area which was liberated,” he said.

Military officials had said that Rapid Response troops, an elite interior ministry division, on Tuesday recaptured the provincial government headquarters, the central bank branch and the museum where militants filmed themselves destroying priceless statues in 2015.

“The museum is completely empty of all artefacts. They were stolen, possibly smuggled,” Lami said. Reuters was not yet able to access the museum to verify.

Lami said most of the fighters that had fought around the governorate building were local but there were some foreigners.

“An order was issued for foreign fighters with families to withdraw with them. Those who do not have a family should stay and fight, whether foreign or local,” he said.

Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led air power and military advisers, have fought since October in an intensive campaign to drive the ultra-hardline militants out of Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in the country.

They recaptured the eastern half of the city in January and launched assaults on the western side, across the Tigris river, on Feb. 19.

Islamic State fighters are retreating further into the west of the city, military officials say, but are putting up stiff resistance, hiding among the civilian population and deploying car bombs and snipers.

ABADI VOWS CROSS-BORDER STRIKES

Losing Mosul would deal a fatal blow to the Iraqi side of Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, which its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared from the city’s Nuri Mosque in 2014, and which has spanned large areas of Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraq would continue hitting Islamic State targets in Syria, as well as in neighbouring countries if they give their approval.

Abadi on Feb. 24 announced the first Iraqi air strike on Syrian territory, targeting Islamic State positions in retaliation for bomb attacks in Baghdad.

“I respect the sovereignty of states, and I have secured the approval of Syria to strike positions (on its territory),” Abadi told a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya on Wednesday.

“I will not hesitate to strike the positions of the terrorists in the neighbouring countries. We will keep on fighting them,” he said.

The ultra-hardline jihadist group has lost most cities it captured in northern and western Iraq in 2014 and 2015.

In Syria, it still holds Raqqa city as its main stronghold, as well as most of Deir al-Zor province, and is being fought by an array of separate enemies, including U.S.-backed forces and the Russian-backed Syrian army.

The group has carried out bombings in Iraqi and Syrian cities as its caliphate has shrunk.

(Writing by John Davison in Erbil; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Dominic Evans)

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