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On Mosul frontlines, Islamic State’s local fighters direct the battle

The Mosul campaign is the most complex battle in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

By: Reuters | Mosul |
January 14, 2017 4:02:18 pm

 

Mosul, Iraq, Mosul Islamic State, Mosul fight, Mosul fighting, Iraq Mosul fighting Iraqi Army soldiers load rockets into a multi-barrel rocket launcher during fight against Islamic State militants to regain control of Mosul University in the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. Iraqi special forces entered Mosul University on Friday in their latest advance along the eastern front as they battle Islamic State militants for control of the city, according to senior Iraqi officers.(AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

As Iraqi government forces advanced towards his eastern Mosul neighbourhood in November, a group of Islamic State militants stormed Abu Rami’s home, put a gun to his head and told him and his family to get out immediately. The militants, including a local man whose name he knew, brought with them a bearded comrade clutching a sniper rifle whom Abu Rami suspects was Russian or Chechen. The foreigner took up position in a rooftop chicken coop.

When Abu Rami returned 11 days later, the fighting had ended and the militants had slipped away, but his two-storey house was destroyed by an air strike. His family is now distributed among relatives and friends across the city. “Destruction occurs in a few moments, but rebuilding takes time,” he said outside the rubble of his home where men huddled around a well to collect water because pipes have been damaged.

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The Mosul campaign, involving a 100,000-strong alliance of Iraqi government troops and militarised police, Kurdish security forces and mainly Shi’ite Muslim militiamen, is the most complex battle in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. With nearly all of eastern Mosul under government control three months into the U.S.-backed offensive, most residents have stayed in the city, complicating the task of the military which must fight among civilians in built-up areas against an enemy that has targeted non-combatants and hidden among them. Residents told Reuters during a visit to the Muharibeen district on Friday how the battle played out for them, describing scenes likely repeated in one form or another across the city.

Mosul university, iraqi forces, islamic state, IS forces, IS, ISIS, world news, indian express news Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) shout slogans during battle with Islamic State militants east of Mosul, Iraq, January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

The militants hung curtains across roadways to try to obscure the view of Iraqi army marksmen as they dashed from houses to pray in a tan-coloured mosque where they also posted a sniper in the minaret, Abu Rami said. They kept a car packed with explosives parked opposite his house for more than a week. When they deployed it to a main street, an army tank shelled it, destroying an adjacent building.

DIVISION OF LABOUR

When it launched the offensive in October, the Iraqi government hoped to retake Mosul – Islamic State’s last major stronghold in the country and the largest urban centre anywhere in its self-styled caliphate spanning neighbouring Syria – by the end of 2016. But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in December it could now take another three months to drive the militants out.

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Iraq, Mosul situation, Mosul clash, Mosul hospital gutted, Mosul troops, Iraq situation, Mosul's al-Salam hospital, ISIS-Iraqi army clash, world news, indian express news Iraqi security forces stand outside al-Salam hospital in Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. The Mosul hospital has been left almost completely gutted by the battle to retake it. Al-Salam hospital was the scene of one of the most significant setbacks for Iraqi troops in the Mosul operation, but was retaken this month after a stepped-up campaign of US-led coalition airstrikes, despite the coalition’s initial reluctance to use airstrikes against IS there. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

Commanders have said the presence of up to 1.5 million residents and attempts to minimise destruction to homes and key infrastructure has slowed their troops’ advance, though hundreds of civilians have already been killed and many areas heavily damaged. Abu Rami, a 54-year-old former government employee, described a division of labour among Islamic State militants at the frontlines: a group that plants explosives, one that has snipers and another that serves as local guides.

The snipers are usually Russians, Chechens or Afghans, he said. The Iraqis, many from Mosul and the nearby city of Tel Afar, ride around on motorcycles telling them where to take up positions. Abu Rami said he was surprised when the fair-skinned sniper who posted up in his house spoke to him in broken Arabic, saying: “For the sake of Allah, get out.”

“They do not know the area so the motorcycle guides the suicide car bomb (to its target) and tells the fighters, ‘You go here, you go there. Go detonate here'”, he said. U.S. Army Lieutenant-General Steve Townsend, commander of the international coalition backing Iraqi forces, told Reuters last week that Islamic State’s local leadership had proven effective without a hierarchical chain of command. But he said separate cells fighting in different neighbourhoods appeared increasingly unable to coordinate across different areas it controlled inside the city.

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Iraq war, ISIS in Iraq, Iraqi family in Mosul, Iraqi family fleeing Islamic State, Mosul conflict, Mosul fighting, iraq news, world news, latest news, indian express In this Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016 photo, Abdul-Hameed, 15, lies in a hospital bed at West Emergency Hospital in Irbil, Iraq. Abdul-Hameed was injured in an Islamic State militant mortar attack in Mosul. The 15-year-old Iraqi boy was lying in a hospital bed recovering from his wounds when his brother brought him the news: Their father, a few rooms over, had just died from the shrapnel lodged in his head from the same Islamic State group mortar attack that hit their family in Mosul. (AP Photo/Cengiz Yar)

Another U.S. military official said fighters the coalition observes moving skilfully across Mosul’s urban terrain usually turn out to be foreigners. According to another Muharibeen resident, who asked not to be named, Islamic State will shoot from a position for several minutes until the military identifies the location. The militants often escape to another house through holes previously knocked through outer walls.

“Then there is bombardment to destroy the house, to destroy the sniper position,” he said. “But the sniper will pop up again here or there.”

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First published on: 14-01-2017 at 04:02:18 pm
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