Inside Mosul: The fight against Isis proceeds, room by room

Militants remaining in Iraqi city captured in June 2014 are there to fight to the death

 

After three months of fighting, the battle to retake Mosul has entered a new chapter, but the Islamic State terror group’s vast arsenal of car bombs and suicide vests is far from spent and most of the civilian population is still trapped.

By Friday last, the government forces had pushed the militants across the Tigris River, which divides the city. With a partial victory in sight, a small group of journalists were invited by the Iraqi government to report from the besieged city.

The mood among the troops was mostly celebratory: Islamic State – also known as Isis – was on the run. But the fighting was far from over, and the danger still all too real. On the other side of the Tigris – just a few hundred yards away and home to 750,000 people – the militants were still in control.

Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, was captured by Islamic State in June 2014. An operation to retake it, led by the Iraqi government with the support of allies including the US, has been under way since October.

I was embedded with a special forces unit, led by Staff Col Muhanad Saad. These soldiers are among the Iraqi army’s best troops. They faced Islamic State booby traps, gunmen and, perhaps scariest of all, suicide car bombers. At one point, the troops pointed their rifles skyward to shoot down an Islamic State drone carrying an explosive payload.

As our convoy of tanks, armour-plated bulldozers and Humvees snaked through the city, small groups of commandos peeled off to search houses where they believed militants were hiding. Fearing booby traps, they moved carefully through buildings, peering into cupboards and behind sofas, always careful not to move anything that could trigger a makeshift explosive.

The militants who remained in eastern Mosul were there to fight to the death. Slowly, the soldiers picked off fighters one by one. The body of one fighter was found sprawled in the gated driveway of a home on a leafy street in the upscale Andalus neighborhood. His dusty, mangled body was at odds with what still was a beautiful and serene part of the city.

A boy, no more than 10, appeared from the house next door and hardly gave the macabre scene on his doorstep a second glance. Though much of the worst fighting was over, the soldiers were still on alert for suicide car bombers, a fear well founded. Occasionally, a radio would crackle with news that a car bomber had been spotted nearby. After a few tense minutes, we would hear the sound of a missile fired by a coalition warplane and the car exploding.

At one point, a suspicious car was reported nearby and heading straight for our position. The bomber had broken through a line of parked cars, intended to stop just such an attack, and detonated his explosives. The fireball destroyed two Humvees and injured four soldiers. The bomb shattered nearby windows, left a crater the size of a boulder, and threw burning pieces of the vehicle into the first floor of a nearby house.

Humanitarian crisis

Slowly, residents emerged from their homes to greet and thank their liberators. Visibly pale and wan, presumably from spending days indoors away from the fighting, men warily peered from their homes’ front gates, while the women and girls inside waved and cried out.

Much of the soldiers’ work was slow going – clearing houses, room by room, or searching the huge, unfinished mosque in Al Thaqafa neighborhood. Several military snipers took up positions on the balconies of the once-luxurious Nineveh International Hotel. From there they could look across the Tigris, monitoring and targeting their enemy several hundred yards away.

Many of the residents able to leave have sought refuge at the camps on the edge of Ninevah province and in Iraqi Kurdistan. The humanitarian situation in eastern Mosul is dire. Most aid organisations have avoided the front lines because of security concerns. Thousands of people have fled eastern Mosul as the fighting has intensified and the front lines have shifted.

All five of the Tigris River bridges that connected the city were destroyed in air strikes at the end of last year. Utilities like running water and electricity are nonexistent in many districts, and the city lacks basic medical care.

As the battle moves west, humanitarian organisations are worried about the 750,000 people still under Islamic State control in the western half of the city. Although Iraqi forces and coalition air strikes have tried to avoid civilian casualties, there is no avoiding the fact that this fighting is taking place in a heavily populated urban environment.

One man, Khalid Mohammed Qassim (42), wanted to check on the flour factory where he had worked for 15 years as a driver. While walking, he and his 16-year-old son, Zaid Khalid Mohammed, were killed when they were struck by a roadside bomb, Qassim’s nephew said.

They were buried together in a cemetery in Gogjali, a suburb, where the gravediggers say they bury about 10 people every day. As fighting spreads to the western half of the city, they said, they will soon be busier.

New York Times

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