Islamic State under pressure in Iraqi and Syrian strongholds

By Stephen Kalin and Goran Tomasevic

MOSUL, Iraq/RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Iraqi forces pressed Islamic State fighters holding out in Mosul’s Old City on Friday, while in Syria the militant group launched a counter-attack against an alliance of militias trying to oust it from its de facto capital of Raqqa.

In Iraq, dozens of civilians poured out of Mosul, long held by IS, and fled in the direction of the Iraqi forces, many of them women and children, thirsty, tired and some wounded.

Iraqi authorities say they are only days away from a victory over militants in their remaining redoubt in Mosul, though commanders of counter-terrorism units fighting their way through the narrow streets of the Old City say die-hard IS fighters are dug in among civilians and the battle ahead remains challenging.

Across the border in Syria, parts of which the IS says fall under its self-proclaimed caliphate, the picture was more complex.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the group had retaken most of the industrial district of Raqqa after mounting a fierce counter-attack against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias.

But west of Raqqa, the Syrian army put the group under more pressure, driving it from its last territory in Aleppo province, a Syrian military source said, in a strategically-important move that relieves pressure on a government supply route.

Even though the IS group is under pressure in these urban strongholds in Iraq and Syria its fighters still occupy an area as big as Belgium across the two countries, according to one estimate.

THOUSANDS DISPLACED, KILLED

In Iraq, grinding warfare in Mosul has displaced 900,000 people, about half the city’s pre-war population, and killed thousands of civilians, according to aid organizations.

Major General Maan al-Saadi, of the Counter Terrorism Service, told Reuters it could take four to five days to capture the insurgents’ redoubt in Mosul by the Tigris River which was defended by about 200 militants.

Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped in the city in desperate conditions, with dwindling supplies of food, water or medicine and no access to health services, according to those who have managed to flee.

The capture of the city would in effect mark the end of the Iraqi half of the caliphate, although the group still controls territory west and south of the city, holding sway over hundreds of thousands of people.

Those who escaped on…

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