The so-called Islamic State is finding it harder to get to work on the battlefields around Mosul, thanks to a series of U.S. coalition strikes that have taken out all but one major bridge across the indigo-blue Tigris River that bisects Iraq’s second largest city.
The Old Nineveh Bridge is the only one left for militants or locals to cross, after U.S. air strikes took out four of Mosul’s main river crossings, damage clearly visible in satellite images (live 4 a.m. ET) made exclusively available to The Daily Beast by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
The images provide a window into a battle for a city held by ISIS since 2014, and a glimpse into the lives of roughly a million people estimated to be trapped inside it. Almost 70,000 Iraqis have fled the city, and Iraqi forces have asked the remainder to stay in their homes to avoid getting caught in the cross fire.
The images show there’s still bustling commerce in the center of town, and heavy traffic on the one remaining bridge that connects the two sides across the wide, swift Tigris.
The photos also show how the coalition is trying target ISIS while doing the minimum of damage to the city’s infrastructure, looking ahead to rebuilding once ISIS is driven out.
“The coalition has disabled four of the five bridges connecting east and west Mosul,” and created roads through the desert to get around ISIS ambushes and roadblocks, the coalition’s deputy commander Major General Rupert Jones told reporters Thursday. “This combination of the two tactics seems to be reducing the number of VBIEDs [vehicle borne improvised explosive devices aka car bombs] the enemy has been able to use.”
But the novel tactic here is hitting the bridges hard enough to disable them, without destroying them.
“The Iraqi intent is to rebuild them or repair them, so we have struck them in a way that is repairable,” coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian said in an interview from Baghdad.
The images taken by commercial satellite track with the coalition’s narrative, with the damage matching up to strikes listed in Central Command’s daily rundown of strikes, on Oct. 16, Nov. 4, and Nov. 22.
The images also do show that bombs have surgically removed sections of the bridge mostly over land, likely to make them easier to repair, said Stratfor military analyst Sim Tack.
“That’s something we can clearly tell in the satellite imagery. They’ve tried to make the damage accessible to repair crews,” Tack said. “For most, what happened is the U.S. Air Force specifically targeted a portion not located over the water. They took out one single section of the bridge where you can see that section destroyed or lying below.”
“Even the one over water, they kind of surgically removed a section of the bridge,” rather than taking out the supporting pylons, which would be much harder to repair. Tack said that particular bridge had to be hit twice—the first strike months earlier this year didn’t stop ISIS from using the bridge so U.S. jets did another run days after the first one.
ISIS is apparently trying to repair the damage of at least one of the bridges, moving piles of dirt and earthmoving equipment into position near one of the damaged bridges.
The one bridge left standing is jammed, with traffic so acute that some people in the images appear to be crossing one of the partially destroyed bridges on foot, clinging to the remains of the bridge’s superstructure to cross.
“The old bridge is completely packed with cars and cars are lining up on both sides from streets away, waiting to cross,” Tack said. “The vehicles look like regular cars. They’re aren’t tanks or armored vehicles…or technical (military-style pickup trucks) with weapons on the back.”
He said the images do not look like a city under siege.
“With all the reports of all the fighting going on, you expect to see a militarized ghost town, but from the imagery in the sky, it looks like the city is very much alive,” he said.
Humanitarian groups have criticized the strikes as further limiting the movement of Iraqi civilians, trapped between the approaching Iraqi forces and ISIS.
“Our concern is that ‘safe passages’ or ‘escape routes’ for civilians, as many as possible, need to be secured so that the people can leave for safer areas, if they need to or choose to, and are not trapped between front lines,” said Katharina Ritz, the ICRC’s Head of Delegation in Iraq, in an emailed statement to The Daily Beast. “The bridges are the link between the Western and Eastern side of parts of Mosul and therefore constitute a potentially important escape route, depending on how front lines evolve.”
She added that the bridges can also serve as important access routes for humanitarian workers and supplies.
“We carefully consider the impact on civilians of strikes, but the biggest threats to civilians in Mosul is Daesh,” countered spokesman Dorrian, using the Arabic term for ISIS. “They are launching rockets and mortars and using human shields and executing people. So they needed to be disabled to protect the advancing force.”