Sept. 1 (UPI) — Kurdish and Arab troops, backed by the United States, have completely pushed the Islamic State from its de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria, a coalition spokesman said Friday.
“Our forces today seized full control of the Old City in Raqqa after clashes [with IS]. We are on the edges of [the IS] security quarter in the city center, where most of its main bases are,” Syrian Democratic Forces spokesperson Talal Sello said Friday.
Well-defended IS positions surrounding the Old City remain in place, and a complete recapture of the city could take weeks. The announcement Friday was meant in part to raise morale of the coalition troops as the Muslim world prepares for the Eid al-Adha holiday, beginning Friday, The Independent reported.
The capture of the Old City came after ground fighting and U.S.-led airstrikes which have caused mounting civilian casualties. About 20,000 civilians remain trapped in a city without electricity or running water. The United Nations estimated that at least 151 civilians were killed in August by the airstrikes, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein suggested the coalition bombings could be violations of international law.
“Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the air strikes on Raqqa, coupled with [IS] use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians, who should be protected at all times, are paying an unacceptable price, and that forces involved in battling [IS] are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle. Meanwhile, [IS] fighters continue to prevent civilians from fleeing the area, although some manage to leave after paying large amounts of money to smugglers,” al-Hussein said in a statement.
The gain of territory in Raqqa comes amid a controversial agreement between the Syrian government, Hezbollah and IS to allow IS personnel safe passage across Syria. The deal is part of a ceasefire between the combined armies of Hezbollah and Lebanon, and Syria’s army.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi was critical of the deal, as were many other Iraqi politicians, but Vice President Nouri al-Maliki said the issue is an internal Syrian matter– and noted that the IS militants will arrive in areas adjacent to the border, where Iraqi troops are fighting.
Maliki’s reasoning prompted Iraqi legislator Awad al-Awadi to suggest the Syrian government can “go to hell” if it expects that Iraqi blood must be shed for Syria, the news website Al-Aribiya reported. In a television interview, Awadi later called on the Iraqi government to oppose the deal.
Tribal leaders along the Syria-Iraq border also voiced their opposition. Muzahim al-Hawyeet, spokesman for an alliance of Arab tribes in Ninevah, called the agreement a new threat against Sunni-run governorates.
The United States also denounced the deal. Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said Wednesday that the U.S,-led coalition ordered airstrikes on bridges and roads in Syria used to interrupt the passage of IS militants.
“The coalition is not a party to the agreement between Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS. Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they allow known terrorists to transit territory under their control,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said on Wednesday.