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Feb 21, 11:32 AM EST

Iraqi forces on Mosul hilltop gird for fierce fight ahead


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ABU SAIF, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi troops worked to secure a strategic hilltop overlooking Mosul's international airport and a nearby military base on Tuesday, fearing the Islamic State group, which still holds both facilities, may launch another wave of nighttime counterattacks.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi forces advancing on western Mosul from the south have not seen the waves of car bombs that troops confronted when they moved into eastern Mosul late last year. But the latest battle, launched on Sunday, is still in its early stages.

As the militarized Federal Police stationed in the hilltop village of Abu Saif scanned a nearby cluster of houses for militants, they spotted around a dozen civilians waving white flags. The soldiers called out for them to approach.

"They're scared," said federal policeman Hashem Ali, adding that he's seen the extremists target fleeing civilians with sniper and mortar fire.

When the family got close enough, a group of soldiers moved down to search them before bringing them back to the base. They handed the men cigarettes and water before whisking them away to be questioned.

"We will put them in one of these empty houses," Ali said. "If their area is liberated soon, then they can return."

The troops expect to encounter far more civilians once they enter western Mosul, the more densely populated half of Iraq's second largest city. Iraqi forces declared the half of the city stretching east of the Tigris River "fully liberated" last month after nearly three months of fierce fighting, but still occasionally come under attack there.

Federal Police Cpt. Asad Abdullah pointed down at Mosul's airport and the Ghazlani military base, the next targets of the offensive. But he said the focus now is erecting dirt berms to guard their front-line position.

"We have seen it before when the enemy sends many car bombs," he said.

Since the new push for western Mosul began two days ago, Iraqi forces have retaken some 120 sq. kilometers (nearly 50 sq. miles) south of the city, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman, told The Associated Press.

Islamic State mortar rounds hit Iraqi positions on Tuesday, and rockets struck the main staging base to the south, in Hamam al-Alil, which was captured last year. At least two soldiers were wounded in the rocket attack, according to Maj. Ghassan al-Wattar, a doctor at a front-line clinic.

The extremists have also deployed car bombs south of Mosul, though not as many as in earlier stages of the four-month-old offensive. Four suicide car bombs struck Iraqi forces late Monday, and another five were destroyed by airstrikes before hitting their targets, Federal Police Maj. Gen. Saleh Nasr said.

Al-Wattar, the Federal Police doctor, said at least eight troops had been killed over the past two days and dozens wounded. He said the casualty rates were nothing like the first days of the Mosul offensive in October, when he admitted 90 people in a single day.

A spokesman for Iraq's government-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, which mainly consist of Shiite militias, said three Shiite clerics were among those killed by Monday's car bombs.

Ibrahim Saleh, one of the civilians who fled to Abu Saif, said the small cluster of homes near the front line were still held by a handful of IS fighters. He said he fled after an airstrike destroyed his brother's home and the water his family stockpiled began to run low.

"My cousin is still under the rubble," he said.

Sagar Mehdi, a teenager, said he was inside when the airstrike hit the house. "I don't know what happened, everything just came down," he said.

After he was searched by Iraqi troops, Saleh began trying to call his wife and two children, whom he had left behind.

"I was afraid it would be too dangerous for them," he said, adding that he didn't know if the militants had mined the field or if they would shoot at him as he fled.

The U.N. estimates that some 750,000 people are trapped in western Mosul in "siege-like" conditions. Fleeing residents say food supplies have almost completely run out, bakeries have closed and drinking water is scarce.

The large numbers of civilians will make it difficult to use airstrikes and artillery to clear the area, slowing the troops' advance as they push into the city.

"Daesh will push the civilians to the front," Nasr, the Federal Police Maj. Gen. said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "They'll use them as shields."

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Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad.

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