More than 300 child fighters are among the almost 500 jihadists who have been killed in battles by US-backed forces to wrest the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State, a Syrian watchdog group said.
According to a report Sunday by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the majority of those killed in battles with Iraqi, Kurdish and Shiite troops converging on the city were Syrian minors drafted to fight for Islamic State’s “Cubs of the Caliphate” youth force.
The Cubs of the Caliphate receive intense military and religious training throughout IS’s areas of control in Syria, according to reports from the war-torn country.
The child soldiers are deployed to man checkpoints or gather intelligence from areas outside IS control, but IS has also used them to execute prisoners or conduct suicide attacks.
The Observatory put the total number of Islamic State fighters killed since the offensive began two weeks ago at 480, well below the 800-900 fatalities figure offered by the Pentagon last week.
While their forces suffered heavy losses, IS preachers continued to announce victory in Mosul. “Allah has replaced the loss in Aleppo’s Dabiq with a victory in Mosul,” they told worshipers.
Though only a small town of marginal strategic importance in northern Syria, Dabiq has figured centrally in IS propaganda. Citing Islamic lore, the extremist group claims it will be the stage for an apocalyptic battle between Crusaders and an army of the Muslim caliphate that will herald doomsday. The group’s English-language propaganda magazine is named after the town.
Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces captured the symbolically significant town from IS on October 16, the day before the offensive to retake Mosul was launched.
Mosul is the last bastion of IS in Iraq, linked by road to territory it holds in Syria.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been advancing on Mosul from the north, east and south after the launch of a vast offensive to retake IS’s last stronghold in the country.
After standing largely on the sidelines in the first days of the assault, forces from the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashed al-Shaabi) — a paramilitary umbrella organisation dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias — began a push on Saturday toward the west of Mosul.
Spokesmen for Iraq’s state-sanctioned Shiite militias say that some 5,000 fighters have joined their push to encircle the country’s second largest city and cut off Islamic State fighters there.
Karim al-Nuri of the Popular Mobilization Units and Jaafar al-Husseini, a spokesman for unit member the Hezbollah Brigades, said Sunday that a total of some 15,000 Shiite fighters were participating in the battle.
The Iraqi military confirmed the figures, which, including army units, militarized police, special forces and Kurdish fighters mean the total number of anti-IS forces in the offensive now stands at over 40,000.
The US military estimates IS has 3,000 to 5,000 fighters inside Mosul and another 1,500-2,500 in the city’s outer defensive belt. The total number includes around 1,000 foreign fighters.
Troops are now converging on the city from all directions, although most fighting is still taking place in towns and villages on Mosul’s outskirts. The operation is expected to take weeks, if not months.
Kurdish units are effectively operating on the opposite side of Mosul from the Shiite militiamen, with whom relations are tense.
The involvement of Shiite militias in the Mosul operation has been a source of contention, though the Hashed’s top commanders insist they do not plan to enter the largely Sunni city.
Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arab politicians have opposed their involvement, as has Turkey which has a military presence east of Mosul despite repeated demands by Baghdad for the forces to be withdrawn.
Relations between the Hashed and the US-led coalition fighting IS are also tense, but the paramilitaries enjoy widespread support among members of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
The Hashed has been a key force in Iraq’s campaign to retake areas seized by IS in mid-2014, when the jihadists took control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared a cross-border “caliphate.”
But the paramilitaries have been repeatedly accused of human rights violations during the war against IS, including summary killings, kidnappings and destruction of property.