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Iraqi forces seek US help to clean up suspected weapons lab at Mosul University

Cars and bicycles pass along a road near Mosul University on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

SETH ROBSON/STARS AND STRIPES

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 22, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq — Iraqi troops mopping up the last enemy resistance in the eastern part of this city have asked for American help in disposing of chemicals in a suspected weapons laboratory captured during an advance that freed thousands from the Islamic State group’s reign of terror.

The laboratory is at Mosul University, which sustained heavy damage during a battle to evict Islamic State militants from its grounds last week.

Brig. Gen. Sami Alaredhy, commander of ISOF 3, part of the elite Golden Division that has spearheaded the Mosul operation, said Saturday that his troops killed 23 enemy fighters and secured the lab.

“We are waiting for American chemical experts to come and deal with what’s there,” he said.

Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve officials did not immediately respond to questions about the laboratory.

Kurdish media reported that fighting was still going on in some parts of eastern Mosul Sunday. But a day earlier, the district around the university appeared secure. Nearby buildings were pockmarked by bullet holes, and the body of a dead man, who locals said was an Islamic State fighter, lay in the street.

But university student Saad Subhi, 27, felt safe enough to go back to the campus and survey the battle damage.

The English language student spent two years living in fear of the militants before his neighborhood was liberated Wednesday, he said as he stood in a pile of blackened rubble just inside the university’s front gate.

Emotions overwhelmed the young man as he talked about what he and his family experienced during the battle to expel the militants.

“The last night under the Islamic State was a terrible night,” he said.

The family sheltered in a windowless room and listened to the sound of gunfire, missiles and a car bomb, fearful that the extremists would knock at the door.

Neighbors had been threatened with swords and ejected from their homes before the battle. Those who argued were killed, Subhi said.

The sound of government forces moving through the street in Humvees signaled the end of the ordeal. When the doorknock came, it was Iraqi troops rather than militants outside, he said.

“We started kissing and hugging the soldiers,” he said.

Taxis and pedestrians filled the street a few blocks from the university as people who had fled headed home. Roadside vendors were out selling all manner of goods, including hookah pipes, which the extremists had banned.

Subhi said he was looking forward to resuming his studies once the university reopened.

“I lived a very primitive life (under the Islamic State group),” he said. “We had no water or electricity, but we survived.”

In another neighborhood, Iraqi troops clambered over the ruins of the Nabi Yunus Mosque. The Islamists blew up the ancient building, said to have interred the remains of the biblical prophet Jonah, famed for escaping from the belly of a whale.

One of the soldiers at the mosque, 1st Lt. Ali Abdul Hussain, 28, of Baghdad, looked across the city toward the Tigris River, where his comrades on the front line were only 100 yards from insurgents to the west.

“This area was the last place we fought them,” he said of the streets surrounding the mosque.

The enemy ran away when the special forces troops arrived, but they had already killed many civilians who had tried to get to government-controlled areas, Hussain said.

The soldiers have been clearing away the dead over the past few days, giving bodies to relatives to bury.

“Now we are searching for sleeper cells,” Hussain said.

Each day the Iraqi soldiers capture four or five collaborators fingered by their neighbors.

“Not all of these people are Islamic State,” he said of the residents. “We have to work with them, but some are afraid that the army will withdraw and the enemy will come back.”

Those suspected of supporting the militants are sent to the nearby village of Bartella for interrogation and then to Baghdad, Hussain said.

Some don’t make it that far.

One soldier showed images on a phone of a man tied to a chair.

“He raped three Yazidi girls. We killed him,” he said.

Some of the special operations troops in the city are assigned to the Mosul Battalion. The unit was based in western Mosul at Ghizlani Camp, which U.S. soldiers called Forward Operating Base Marez, when the Islamic State swept into town two years ago.

Mosul Battalion commander Lt. Col. Muntether Al Shemari said that he and his men had enough food, ammunition and weapons to hold out for months after the militants arrived but that they were ordered to withdraw by then-Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki.

Shemari said he was eager to get back to Ghizlani Camp, though aerial photographs show that it had been ransacked.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1

Residents walk through a liberated neighborhood in Mosul, Iraq, on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.
SETH ROBSON/STARS AND STRIPES

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