Iraqi forces consolidate gains in half-liberated Mosul

With IS militants purged from the eastern half of the city, security forces prepare for the next phase of battle while residents strive to recover from two months of urban warfare.
Iraqi forces consolidate gains in half-liberated Mosul
Iraqi Special Forces soldiers patrol a street near Mosul's Grand Mosque after liberating the area, Jan. 18, 2017. (ANDREA DICENZO)

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MOSUL - For one brigadier in Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), the final stage of liberating the eastern half of Mosul was personal: he could rescue his relatives.

On Wednesday, as Iraqi forces were conducting clearance operations in the last contested neighborhoods, the brigadier - who requested anonymity because his actions were not sanctioned by superiors - left his vehicle and went searching for an aunt he hadn't seen for over 15 years.

Down an alleyway in the Muhandiseen neighborhood, which IS had controlled only one day before, he found her - along with her husband, who is a doctor, and their three young children.

"Daesh fighters were like stray dogs with no love of humanity in their hearts," the doctor said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals against relatives still living in areas under IS control. "They executed 10 men and crucified their bodies on the bridge to inflict horror into the hearts of the residents of the area."

As he spoke, his children sat silently.

"I had to lock them inside the house so they wouldn't be traumatized by what was unfolding on the streets," the doctor said. "My kids quit school under Daesh, and I carried on home-schooling them from the Iraqi curriculum."

In a press conference later that day, Staff Gen. Talib al-Shegati, the head of the CTS, declared that, after two months of grueling combat, the Left Bank of Mosul - that is, the eastern half of the city, which is bisected by the Tigris river - was under "full control" of Iraqi forces.

Hundreds of residents from recently liberated areas traveled east, into neighborhoods where markets and basic primary health clinics have reopened, fuel supplies are returning, and municipal workers are patching up broken power lines and fixing busted water mains.

Other civilians were not able to escape. As IS militants retreated from the Left Bank, they dragged many people out of their homes to use as human shields, forcing them to march on foot to the northern Rashidiyah neighborhood, or to join them on small boats across the Tigris, to the IS-held Right Bank of the city.

"The fighters were blended with the civilians to avoid airstrikes," the doctor said.

The aftermath of those airstrikes was evident in the newly liberated neighborhoods. One resident of the Shurta neighborhood gestured to a twisted wreck of metal a few meters from his front door.

"This was a Daesh vehicle with four fighters inside," said a resident of the Shurta neighborhood. "It was blown up by an airstrike. They all burned to death inside."

(Map created by the Institute for the Study of War)

Turning the tide

The liberation of the Left Bank marks a significant and badly needed victory for Iraqi forces.

After a swift campaign by combined Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces to take villages around Mosul, an initial burst by CTS into the city's eastern neighborhoods became bogged down in difficult urban combat. For weeks they took heavy casualties, facing a determined enemy that employed snipers and suicide car bombs to deadly effect.

Ground forces re-equipped and developed a new battle plan with U.S. advisors, launching a "second phase" operation to liberate the Left Bank. Coalition jets played a key role, tearing up IS supply and car bomb routes, including bridges spanning the Tigris, with hundreds of low-payload airstrikes.

The Iraqi military also learned new tricks. One key moment came on Jan. 6, when special forces commandoes used an improvised earth bridge to cross the Khorsar River, a tributary of the Tigris that cuts across half of the Left Bank. That enabled CTS forces to launch a surprise nighttime raid on the Muthanna neighborhood.

"The terrorists were betting on the Khorsar River to serve them as natural barrier to stall our advances, but our ability to cross the river at night in a unique military operation, and lay down bridges in a matter of hours, shocked IS," Alwan said. "Their defensive lines collapsed when we regained control of Muthanna."

The raid was a "game changer," Alwan said, because it gave Iraqi forces a sense of momentum to clear the rest of the Left Bank. It may have also helped demoralize IS fighters.

Several residents nearby said that, in the waning days of IS control over the Left Bank, a split in their ranks began to emerge. Local fighters did not put up resistance and could be seen fleeing, while a few foreign fighters stayed and fought to the death.

Residents had previously reported arguments, and even gunfights, between local and foreign militants over confiscations of civilian property, and whether to withdraw from the Left Bank or stand and fight.

The next phase of the battle will focus on the Right Bank, where the narrow labyrinthine streets of the old city and higher population density may make for an even harder fight. It's unclear how many IS militants - which the U.S.-led coalition estimated at 4,000 to 6,000 at the outset of the Mosul operation - remain inside the city.

Taking stock

Another weeks-long pause is now likely as the Iraqi military's most elite soldiers build defenses along the Tigris, mop up militants still hiding in recently liberated areas, and eventually transfer their responsibilities to a hold force composed largely of local police.

"Our focus after the liberation will be on deployment of the local security forces and a special force unit to police the liberated areas across the Tigris river," said Col. Mohannad Saad Alwan of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), speaking at a military base in the Zuhur neighborhood. "We will be constantly patrolling these areas."

According to the UN, around 160,000 residents from Mosul and the surrounding areas have been displaced, most of whom have been effectively interned in camps where winter conditions have been harsh. Many other civilians on the Left Bank - likely the majority - sheltered at home.

Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) forces move a defused Islamic State car bomb, close to Mosul's Fifth Bridge, Jan. 18, 2017. (RAWAZ TAHIR/Iraq Oil Report)

Thousands of civilians have died in the Mosul offensive - some caught in the crossfire of battle, and others deliberately targeted by IS snipers and mortar fire.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports 1,513 civilians casualties between Oct. 17 and Jan. 11, more than one in ten of whom are children under 15. It's a tally WHO country representative Altaf Musani said "grossly under-represents" the true total because it is sourced solely from admissions to two emergency hospitals in Erbil.

Unable to flee under fire, many residents buried relatives in their gardens. Many other civilians who were critically injured died on the hours-long trip from Mosul to Erbil.

Humanitarian agencies initially expected that up to a million civilians would flee Mosul. Now, they are rushing to redeploy limited resources to deliver aid into a city coming back to life.

In the eastern parts of the city, traders and residents have been re-opening markets. Most homes remain intact. After weeks of drought, some municipal water supplies are back, boosting supplies trucked in across the area by UNICEF.

Primary health clinics in the Zuhur and Sukar neighborhoods have reopened, flooded by 1,400 admissions per day, Musani said. Doctors are struggling to treat all manner of maladies, from life-threatening trauma wounds to diabetics desperate for insulin.

Traffic has returned to the Zuhur and Bakr neighborhoods, which on Wednesday were packed with cars. Motorists, free to drive after months cooped up at home, bought fuel from private dealers towing handcarts full of gasoline bottles.

On the other side of the Tigris, still firmly under IS control, residents who spoke by phone with Iraq Oil Report said the conditions are increasingly dire.

Food is running out, with even IS militants seen squabbling over dwindling supplies. Water has been cut off for weeks and there are no medical supplies.

IS has imposed a rolling curfew, and the remaining fighters are growing ever more paranoid, frequently executing civilians suspected of spying. Lately, they have also started turning on one another.

On Thursday afternoon, according to one civilian eyewitness, a group of IS fighters publicly executed one of their own members in the New Mosul neighborhood over accusations he was a spy for coalition forces.

Rawaz Tahir reported from Mosul. Patrick Osgood reported from Erbil and Baghdad. Other staff reporting from Mosul are kept anonymous for their security.

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