Battle for Mosul: Iraqi forces retake train station, once a major rail hub

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Retaking Mosul's train station is a symbolic victory for Iraqi forces and also brings them closer to fully recapturing west Mosul

An Iraqi special forces Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) fighter in Mosul's al-Rifaq neighbourhood on 8 January (AFP)
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Tuesday 14 March 2017 19:06 UTC
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Iraqi forces said on Tuesday that they recaptured Mosul's train station, once one of the country's main rail hubs and the latest in a series of key sites retaken from the Islamic State (IS) group.

Meanwhile, federal police killed the military commander of the Old City, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, during operations to clear Bab al-Tob district, a federal police officer said. With many IS leaders having already retreated from Mosul, Ansary's death comes as blow to the militants as they defend their shrinking area of control street-by-street and house-by-house.

The Iraqi forces launched a major push last month to oust the IS militants from west Mosul, taking back a series of neighbourhoods as well as sites including the city's airport, the Mosul museum and the provincial government headquarters.

Some sites, including the museum, which was vandalised by IS militants, have been heavily damaged, and it will likely be a long time before trains are again plying the rails to and from Mosul.

But retaking the sites are symbolic victories for Iraqi forces and also bring them closer to fully recapturing west Mosul, though tough fighting remains ahead.

Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the commander of the federal police, said that his forces had retaken the train station as well as a nearby bus station, both of which are located south-west of Mosul's Old City.

The station was the "main corridor from the north to the south and carries goods from Turkey and Syria to Baghdad and Basra", Salam Jabr Saloom, the director general of Iraq's state-owned railway company, told AFP.

Because of its importance, the station was "exposed to many terrorist attacks before the entry of Daesh", Saloom said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

The station was built in the 1940s and was "very important from a trade standpoint" as it was a "launch point for trains carrying goods to Syria and Turkey and back", railway company spokesman Abdulsattar Mohsen told AFP.

"But it stopped after the Daesh attack on Mosul," Mohsen said, referring to an IS offensive that overran the city and swathes of other territory north and west of Baghdad in 2014.

Trains once carried passengers to and from Mosul as well, but have not done so since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by US-led forces in 2003, he said.

Horrendous conditions

Iraqi forces are operating on the edge of the Old City, a warren of narrow streets and closely spaced buildings where hundreds of thousands of people may still reside.

The area, in which they will have to advance on foot when armoured vehicles cannot enter the small streets, could see some of the toughest fighting of the Mosul campaign.

Tens of thousands of people have streamed out of west Mosul to camps around the city since the battle for the area began.

Security forces are searching for militants trying to sneak out of the city among civilians and according to Human Rights Watch are holding more than 1,200 men and boys suspected of IS ties in "horrendous conditions" at sites south of Mosul.

"The Iraqi interior ministry is holding at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions and with limited access to medical care at... makeshift prisons," HRW said in a report.

"At least four prisoners have died, in cases that appear to be linked to lack of proper medical care and poor conditions and two prisoners' legs have been amputated, apparently because of lack of treatment for treatable wounds," the watchdog said.

The facilities are located in Qayyarah and Hamam al-Alil, said HRW, which visited some of them earlier this month.

The rights group said that the makeshift prisons were under the authority of the Interior Ministry intelligence service, which is interrogating people handed over by security forces fighting IS.

Iraq was under heavy pressure to improve its procedures for the Mosul operation after people reported torture and other abuses during screening of those who fled Fallujah, which Baghdad's forces retook from IS last year.

While changes do seem to have been made, the HRW allegations indicate that significant problems remain with screening procedures - problems that breed anger and resentment that drives more people into the arms of militants.

Thousands displaced

Meanwhile, more than 80,000 people have fled west Mosul since the battle to retake the area began last month, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.

The IOM began recording displacements from the area six days later and 80,568 people have fled since then, it said on its official Twitter account.

But that is still a small fraction of the 750,000 people who were estimated to still reside in west Mosul at the time the operation began.

IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since retaken most of the territory they lost.

Iraqi forces launched the operation to recapture Mosul from IS in October, retaking its east before setting their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west.

According to the IOM, more than 238,000 people are currently displaced due to fighting in the Mosul area, while more fled but later returned to their homes.