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IS fighters look vulnerable as losses mount in Iraq

Balint Szlanko
Associated Press

Dibaga Camp, Iraq — As the Islamic State group loses ground in Iraq, the militants are showing strains in their rule over areas they still control, growing more brutal, killing deserters and relying on younger and younger recruits, according to residents who fled battleground territories.

The accounts point to the difficulties the extremist group faces as Iraqi forces, backed by the United States, prepare for an assault on Mosul, the largest city still in the militants’ hands.

For months, Iraqi troops, militias and Kurdish fighters have been clawing back territory town by town, making their way toward the northern city.

In Qayara, which remains in IS hands, beheadings and extrajudicial killings that previously were occasional became commonplace in a hunt for spies and deserters, said Jarjis Muhammad Hajaj, who was among thousands of residents who fled fighting in the area and now live in the Dibaga Camp for displaced people in Kurdish-run territory.

“They started making raids on houses, arresting people and beheading them,” he said.

Hajaj said the group’s fighters appeared increasingly nervous as they watched news of IS loses elsewhere.

Their ranks also appeared to turn more to younger, less experienced men. At one point, almost all the militants guarding the streets were teenagers, he said. That, Hajaj said, was when he thought, “They’re collapsing. They’re finished.”

Fighters as young as 13 or 14 were patrolling in the village of Awsaja on the other side of the river, said one resident, who asked to be identified by his nickname Abu Saleh for fear of reprisals against his family in areas still under IS rule.

He said the militants killed seven people for trying to flee the village, displaying their bodies on a bridge as an example to others.

As Iraqi troops moved on Awsaja, the militants seemed confused on how to respond.

At one point, some IS fighters decided to retreat and ordered all the residents to come with them as human shields, Abu Saleh said. But that prompted an argument with others in the group who were remaining in the village to fight and wanted the residents to stay for their protection, said the 50-year-old psychologist, who fled with other residents and is now also in Dibaga Camp. Iraqi forces succeeded in retaking Awsaja in mid-July.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say the final assault on Mosul is still weeks away as forces fight to retake territory around the city. From the Qayara military base, Iraqi troops are still some 40 miles from the city.

When Iraqi forces retook the area, many of the IS fighters changed into civilian clothes and disappeared into the surrounding desert.

Hajaj, the Qayara resident, said people in the area will never allow them to regain a foothold.

“Now we know who they are, we will never let them return,” he said.