MOSUL, Iraq—The civilians reached the end of the street and spilled onto a stretch of wasteland in the Samah neighborhood in the east of Mosul. Waving white flags, they briefly dithered before filing past a group of Iraqi soldiers that had set up a position in a row of houses at the edge of block. But they were not safe yet.
“They are heading towards the direction of the snipers. They should come this way,” said a soldier who had been watching them from the other end of the open space.
Somehow learned of the risk, and changed course. Around 30 men, women, and children rushed toward us.
The men looked ragged, the women exhausted, the children confused. They smelled of sweat and dust and fear. None of them had washed for days.
As they hurried toward the cover of the buildings, clutching newborns, toddlers, and what few possessions they could carry, a little boy stumbled and fell, crying out in distress before his father scooped him up and uttered a few calming words.
Once across, the civilians were greeted by another troop of soldiers, who gave them directions and ushered them along. They would have to walk several kilometers until reaching Gogjali, a district just outside Mosul, where they would be picked up in trucks and ferried to a camp for displaced persons.
The soldiers that guided the families to safety had fought their way into Mosul from Nov. 4, and had since lodged themselves in Samah and adjacent neighborhoods in Mosul’s eastern suburbs. They belong to the Iraqi Security Operations Forces, more commonly known as the Golden Division, the country’s most elite fighting outfit.
In intense urban combat, they breached the outer defenses put up by the so-called Islamic State, and established a broad corridor in the east of the city.
“When we entered Mosul on Friday, my men were sometimes fighting Daesh [ISIS] in the same building,” says Colonel Munntatha al Samari of the Mosul Battalion of the ISOF 2 Brigade. Since then, they have struggled to pin down an elusive enemy, which declines open battle and instead pops up unexpectedly to launch surprise attacks before disappearing again.
“Daesh never stays in one place. But they don’t leave the neighborhood, they hide among the civilians. Daesh told them to leave their houses open and they can move between houses through holes in the wall,” says the colonel.
The fighters of the Golden Division have hunkered down, entrenching themselves in positions dotted throughout the corridor. Their trademark black Humvees parked outside the abandoned buildings they occupy, the men keep a close eye on their surroundings.
None of the areas nominally under the control of the special forces are safe, and silence rarely falls on these desolate, sandy outskirts of Mosul. High-pitched rifle fire, the thumping rattle of heavy machine gun fire, and the boom of airstrikes and artillery are answered by ISIS with occasional mortar rounds that land close by.
The Golden Division’s hold on the ground is firming, but it is a thankless task for troops that were trained by U.S. special forces to conduct complex, surgical counterterrorism operations.
The Iraqi special forces are also fighting to expand the corridor to the south in an effort to meet up with the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division, which has entered the city from the southeast.
On Tuesday, forward movement was on hold, says Colonel Muntatha, and the ISOF units used their time to repair vehicles and ready themselves for the next fight. As they caught their breath, life stirred in the neighborhood. While civilians have fled the fighting, many families have remained, preferring their homes to the uncertainty of displacement.
“We will die here and we will die out there. We might as well die in our homes,” says Fawsi Wahid, the 57-year-old head of a family living opposite an ISOF 2 position in Samah.
His family of 16 has had to make room for relatives, doubling the inhabitants of the house. Food is scarce, and the families have subsisted on a slimy flour soup mixed with pieces of bread for the past two months.
The kids smile for the camera, but when asked about the situation, Wahid’s 9-year-old granddaughter Tiba bursts into tears. The firefights and the mortar shelling have not been as bad in the past two days, Wahid says reassuringly.
Around 34,000 people have fled Mosul and the surrounding towns and villages so far, a paltry amount compared the city’s population, which is estimated to still be well over one million. The government and the United Nations fear that the trickle could turn into a human tide overwhelming the underfunded humanitarian response, and the military has been ordered to try to keep civilians in their homes.
ISIS has similar plans, and is preventing civilians from fleeing the city, knowing that their presence makes it difficult for the U.S.-led coalition to provide air support, and inhibits Iraqi soldiers on the ground. The insurgents have even kidnapped inhabitants of towns outside Mosul and marched them into the city as human shields.
The brutal strategy is working.
“The aircraft can see the ISIS positions but if they attack they might kill civilians. So there are not many airstrikes,” says Col. Muntatha.
It is not long before he is reminded of another nefarious ISIS tactic. The night before, locals alerted him to an abandoned suicide car bomb, and in the morning the officer makes preparations to eliminate the threat. Car bombs, or Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), have been a mortal danger to the advancing Iraqi and Kurdish troops since the operation to liberate Mosul kicked off three weeks ago.
If the vehicle is not destroyed, ISIS could infiltrate the area and man the car in yet another suicide attack. Taking no chances, the colonel orders one of his men to fire an AT-4 anti-tank missile at the car, which has its bonnet clad in metal sheeting.
The soldier obliges, but the missile fails to detonate the explosives in the car. The soldiers of the Golden Division are not men to leave a job unfinished. A little later, an Abrams main battle tank borrowed from the 9th Division rolls into position, and blasts the car into pieces with its cannon.