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UN secretary-general starts official visit to Iraq

Updated at: 03/30/2017 9:34 AM
By SINAN SALAHEDDIN

Antonio Guterres, Salim al-Jabouri
Antonio Guterres, Salim al-Jabouri
Photo: AP

(AP) BAGHDAD - BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.N. chief visited Iraq on Thursday amid a growing humanitarian crisis due to months-long fighting against the Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

As Antonio Guterres arrived in Baghdad, the extremist group claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide truck bombing in the Iraqi capital the previous night.

The fight to take back Mosul began in October, backed by the U.S.-led international colaition. After routing IS from the eastern part of the city, Iraqi forces in February launched a push to drive the militants from the western half. The Tigris River separates Mosul into its eastern and western sector.

Shortly after landing at Baghdad International Airport, Guterres said on Twitter that his visit is to "focus on the dire humanitarian situation on the ground." Amid reports of dozens of civilians killed by airstrikes in Mosul, he added that "protection of civilians must be the absolute priority."

Guterres was to meet with Iraq's president, prime minster and parliament speaker before heading north to the self-ruled Kurdish region.

Since the start of the Mosul military operation, more than 350,000 people have fled the fighting, according to U.N. figures.

On Thursday, Iraq's militarized federal police inched deeper into Mosul's old city — a dense urban core in the western half of the city — where they met with stiff resistance from IS militants.

First Lt. Walid Khalid of 3rd brigade Federal Police said his troops advanced about 100 meters (yards) in the last two days.

"The distance between IS and us is 50 meters, yesterday, we killed four IS fighters and right now their bodies are in the street." Khalid told The Associated Press. "The situation is very good and the Iraqi air force is doing well."

He said the troops were about 100 meters away from a symbolic mosque where the leader of the extremist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared its self-styled caliphate in the summer of 2014.

Also Thursday, the Site Intelligence group, which monitors extremist groups, reported the IS claim of responsibility for the Baghdad bombing late Wednesday.

In the claim IS warns Iraqi Shiites that the "flame of the battle" in Mosul will come to them in the cities of Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf.

In the attack, a suicide truck bomb targeted a police checkpoint on the Iraqi capital's main southern entrance, killing 15 people and wounding 45. Three policemen were among the dead while the rest were civilians, police and health officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.

The militants have suffered a string of defeats over the past two years in the lead-up to the Mosul operation, but have continued to regularly launch attacks in and around Baghdad. A series of large-scale bombings claimed by IS has also struck Baghdad since the operation to retake Mosul began.

Iraqi and coalition officials have repeatedly warned that after Mosul, IS will likely return to its insurgent roots as it loses more territory in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

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Associated Press video journalist Yesica Fisch in Mosul contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)