MOSUL, Iraq—Turning the corner from a street where blankets were hanging to obscure the view of enemy snipers, a Humvee roared toward the house where Major Mohammed Ali had set up his command post. The armored vehicle came to a screeching halt at the gate of the courtyard, and a heavy door swung open to reveal women, children, and soldiers packed tightly inside.
A portly old woman with white hair and few teeth was the first to emerge. She looked shaky on her feet but wasted no time berating the soldiers about the ordeal she had just experienced. Four-year-old Ayesha followed in her wake, her hazel eyes wide open as she stood briefly to take in her new surroundings, her young mind racing to process the terrifying dash to safety. She was swept away by the rest of the family as they spilled out of the Humvee and rushed into the building.
Another Humvee drove up, and the soldiers helped three men out of the back. Their hands had been bound, and they squatted silently next to the wall in the courtyard. After a brief interrogation by an officer, soldiers cut the cords binding their hands and offered bottles of water.
A crying Ayesha ran out of the house and into the arms of her father, Rayan Jasser, who comforted his child and then recounted his family’s dangerous journey out of Mosul’s Old City, turned into a death trap by ISIS.
“Daesh [ISIS] came to our house last night and told us to move farther back into the city. But this morning I saw that the streets were empty, so I took my family and walked toward the front line. Daesh shot at us five times, and we started running,” says Rayan.
As he speaks, the turret gunners of the Humvees guarding the base open up with their heavy machine guns to suppress ISIS snipers that menace from a soccer stadium to the north. Mortar rounds explode nearby.
ISIS’s hold on Mosul has gradually been reduced in five months of fierce fighting. The militants still control the city’s historic core and the northwestern suburbs, and, if such a thing is conceivable, are increasingly brutal in their efforts to slow the Iraqi advance.
Civilians are forced to move farther into the city as the jihadists retreat, flooding an ever shrinking area with people. The houses and buildings that the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS uses to fire at the military often shelter several families, human shields to deter the use of coalition air power. Anyone trying to cross the front lines is shot at, and civilians frequently are killed as they attempt to flee.
“We spot civilians with a drone when they approach, and then we pick them up at the front line. Every time Daesh sees a family coming towards us, they shoot at them,” says Lieutenant Akil Naseri, who is part of the elite Emergency Response Division (ERD) that holds this part of the front.
The United Nations estimates that up to 400,000 civilians remain trapped in Mosul. In history’s greatest hostage crisis, human tragedy abounds. Amira Yahya, who tagged along with Rayan’s family, left her home without her husband, who had lost his mind from anxiety and refused to leave.
“He said he can’t leave because he needs to take care of his birds,” says Amira, who paused and then added: “He hasn’t got any birds.”
Too frail to walk the half mile to safety, Amira’s old father also stayed behind, and she pleads with her saviors to save these men in her family as well. Before Amira is given a ride out of the city with the rest of the group, she runs her hand down her chin to imitate a beard and draws her finger across her throat, encouraging the soldiers to kill the bushy-bearded jihadists that are the source of her family’s misery.
The ERD, an elite force under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, will be fighting alongside Iraqi Federal Police to clear the Old City. Positioned at its western edge, the soldiers know what to expect. Already, the topography they operate in is changing from wide streets and the square pattern of planned urban development into a warren of narrow alleys and traditional stone houses that has grown organically over the centuries.
“This area is different. The roads are very narrow and the Humvees can’t get through. We will fight them face to face,” says Captain Ali. The ERD take pride in their street-fighting skills. Certainly their mettle will be tested as they advance against a foe with no regard for human life.
Soldiers in the light green camouflage pattern of the ERD cluster in the courtyards of the elegant old houses lining a broad street that marks the border of the Old City. They sit in dark rooms smoking shisha pipes, their weapons scattered about, while others peer through the scope of their sniper rifles at the hostile territory that lies apparently lifeless ahead of them.
Armored personnel carriers in the blue and black of the federal police are parked in the street behind, their personnel milling about. Occasionally, the heavy vehicles lumber into position and spray buildings on a thin sliver of no-mans-land with their grenade launchers to deny the enemy terrain on this claustrophobic battlefield.
The troops have become accustomed to the barbarism of their jihadist foes. A few days ago, ISIS fighters strapped an explosive belt around a mentally handicapped man and forced him to walk toward ERD lines, says Major Wissam al Shamari, who was at the front with his troops at the time.
A video filmed by one of the soldiers found its way onto social media. It shows a man stumbling confused across a debris strewn street, his arms jerking and his body convulsing with panic.
“We saw that he wasn’t normal, and that he had a lot of bombs strapped to him,” said Major Shamari. His troops fired warning shots that hit the ground close to the man until he turned back into the building he had been sent from.
The soldiers have adapted to life in the most dangerous city on earth. They instinctively seek cover or sprint across open spaces to avoid snipers, and do not blink an eye when a mortar smashes into the ground a few meters from their positions. In between operations, they are relaxed as they smoke and drink tea with their comrades, or catch up on sleep on mattresses on the floor.
But the men focus when word of approaching danger comes in.
Captain Ali looks tense after informants in the Old City call up his intelligence officer, Lieutenant Yayha al Saadi, to warn him that ISIS is clearing one of their own road blocks.
The insurgents were preparing to launch a fuel tanker laden with explosives at the Iraqi lines, the informant said, and the captain worries that the massive blast from the suicide attack would level much of the area his men were defending, and tear a huge hole into their lines.
The Iraqis call the U.S.-led coalition for air support, but heavy rainfall prevents the aircraft from getting a clear sight on their target. In the end, the tanker bomb is not driven at the ERD lines, but remains a menace that will cause havoc whenever it is detonated. In the overcrowded Old City, it threatens mass civilian casualties.
Civilians risking their lives to relay information from ISIS-held areas are an invaluable help to the Iraqi military as it plans for offensives and defends against counterattacks.
Four out of his six informants in the Old City are women, says Lieutentant al Saadi. “Women are the better informants. They are more focused, and are more detailed than the men,” says the lieutenant, who has cultivated a network of sources across the city. Four of his informants have been found out by ISIS and murdered, but al Saadi is not concerned the women in the Old City will be caught.
“Daesh doesn’t expect them to be informants. They are told to stay in their houses all day, and they can easily hide their phones in their clothing,” he says.
Al Saadi punches a number on a budget mobile, and a female voice answers. Calmly, a fiftysomething woman speaks to the lieutentant from inside the embattled Old City.
She has counted about 50 insurgents on the streets of her neighborhood from her window, she tells the officer.
“Daesh told us to stay in our homes. They warned us that anyone who goes outside will be killed,” she says.
The situation in the Old City is dire, she continues. Shops long ago ran out of food, and the civilians rely on supplies they stocked up before Mosul was cut off from the outside world last November. Many families survive on a diet of bread, and only eat once or twice a day. There is no electricity or running water, and people are getting rashes from the brackish water they pump from wells in their gardens.
“Sometimes Daesh fighters come to our home to demand food. They are running out of supplies, too,” says the woman on the phone.
Empty stomachs have not prevented the jihadists from mounting a fanatical defense.
In the street where the Humvees picked up Rayan and his family, five dead insurgents lie in a narrow courtyard. The group was gunned down by the advancing ERD, but one of the fighters detonated his suicide vest before the bullets could reach him. His body now lies in a heap, the torso a bloated mass of exposed intestines sprawled over a bruised leg, one eye staring blankly from a bruised face.
When Captain Ali talks about the upcoming battle for Mosul’s core, the worry returns to his face. His unit has been ordered to advance all the way to the Tigris River that bisects Mosul and borders the Old City to the east. “Ask me how I will be able do that?” he helps the interview along.
Later, he plays an ISIS propaganda video on his phone, and it becomes clear that his concerns about the impending battle have not affected his motivation.
The clip shows a man in a uniform, hands bound and kneeling somewhere in the desert, staring into the camera before his throat is cut by a masked jihadist standing behind him. The man was a member of Iraq’s border police, killed by ISIS somewhere in the desert near Syria. He was also a close friend of the captain.
“I watch it to push me to continue fighting,” says Captain Ali.