IS battle in Iraq is 'in name of the whole world'
By Eszter Zalan
Shattered houses destroyed by air strikes, burnt-out cars once hiding improvised bombs, and burnt tyres along the road to mislead air force operations, describe the way leading to the village of Ibrahim Khalil, 35km south-east of Mosul in Iraq.
Signs of a war in which just a few days ago the Iraqi Army took over three nearby villages from the Islamic State militant group (IS) in a larger battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which was shockingly quickly overrun by the Islamist forces two years ago.
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The offensive has triggered concerns in the EU that Islamist fighters could come back to Europe.
"This is a threat we must be prepared to face," EU security commissioner Julian King said recently, while Europol chief Rob Wainwright warned that “further military losses, further military pressure on them in the region, indeed might lead to an increased reflex response by the group [IS] in Europe”.
The fighting has also led about 100,000 Iraqis to flee to Syria, according to the UN, in a move that could push thousands to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. An estimated 4.7 million Syrian refugees already live in the three countries, where the EU is trying to keep them from trying to continue to Europe.
The Iraqi Army, along with the Kurdish peshmerga fighters, are moving village by village to reach Mosul.
“They [IS] fought with snipers and car bombs. We had tanks, the operation lasted for only five hours,” Usama Al-Bayti, a young lieutenant from the 9th Armoured Division's 35th Brigade, says of the battle five days ago.
The military dropped pamphlets to tell the locals they are coming, and to go into hiding. Al-Bayti also said since some of the soldiers are from the village, they were able to contact family members who informed them about IS fighters’ positions.
But the army struggles to hold ground - when they moved further into other villages, IS popped up again in areas already considered liberated using extensive underground tunnels they have built.
Al-Bayti, a 23-year-old who is himself from Mosul, and his comrades are stuck for now.
“We shouldn’t be here, we should be advancing,” another officer shrugged.
Locals waiting in line for aid in a recently liberated village from IS
A large crowd gathered on Monday (24 October) in Ibrahim Khalil from nearby villages, and people displaced by local fighting to receive aid from the International Organisation for Migration, and the World Food Programme.
The UN children's agency Unicef, accompanied by journalists, gave rapid polio vaccinations to some 1,200 families to prevent the disease from resurfacing.
“You can’t describe what we have suffered in two and half years under Daesh [the Arabic name used for IS]. It was like hell, in the full meaning of the word,” said Karim Turki Ismail, waiting in line for aid.
He is from the nearby village of El-Adla. He said when the fighting was over and emerged with white flags from hiding, they welcomed Iraqi troops with kisses and hugs.
“There was no work, nothing, life came to a halt. We were scared of everything, I can’t describe in words. There were constant killings, it is a simple thing for them. They beheaded 20-25 people in the village, because they worked for the army or the police,” he said, coming from a village of roughly 200 families.
But fear and a sense of revenge lingers over the advancement of the Iraqi and Kurdish troops.
IS fighters do not wear uniform and can easily mingle among civilians without being noticed.
A military commander on site argued that not everyone should get aid, saying “half of them are Daesh”. But the UN and the aid organisations cannot, and did not discriminate among people who asked for help.
Some Iraqis are suspicious of displaced people, fearing IS fighters might be hiding among them.
Al-Bayti admitted “sleeper cells” might be in the crowd. He said they captured over 10 IS fighters in the recent days, and intelligence officers are questioning them.
Iraqi troops often fly flags on their vehicles with the picture of Imam Ali, a revered Shia leader, and Al-Bayti, a Shia himself, admits there is a desire for revenge against IS, which follows a version of Sunni Islam.
“They kill Shias, Christians, everybody who is not with them,” he said.
“We will kill them [Daesh], there is no prison for them,” he added.
Asked whether Sunnis and Shias will ever be able to live together and reconcile, he said the two factions of Islam lived together in Iraq for a thousands years in peace.
“So we should be able to live together again,” he said with youthful optimism, saying Sunnis who have not risen up against Daesh before, now understand they were wrong.
“We are fighting in the name of the whole world here [against Daesh], and all the world must help us fight these killers.”