The Battle for Mosul: “I Have Never Seen Such Hard Fighting Like This”
Rasoul, a 26-year-old radio operator, stood in a narrow street in east Mosul a mile from the front line, peering into the early morning light as the armored truck packed with explosives crawled towards him.
The other troops around him fired a volley of bullets that ricocheted harmlessly off its thick steel-plated armor before they ran away. But Rasoul, still wrapped in his night-time wool sleeping cloak, stood his ground shouting warnings to anyone who could hear. He darted and hid in a side street when it was just meters away.
The counter-terrorism force’s Mosul brigade had made its temporary headquarters in the small residential street just a few days earlier. As the truck bomb exploded it felt as if the ground was lifted into the air and dropped back down again. The force of the blast flattened two houses, damaged several more and incinerated four of the unit’s vehicles.
Across the street from where Rasoul had stood, two officers had been asleep in the back room of a two-story house as the family who normally lived there rested elsewhere. Suffocating smoke and dust filled the air, the house had largely collapsed, only the back room had weathered the explosion. One of the officers moaned while the other made long wails that mixed his pain with the word Allah.
The family survived, but civilians elsewhere on the street bore the brunt of the attack. Since October last year, when the operation to pry Mosul from the grip of Islamic State began, the fight between Iraqi forces and the jihadi group, which captured Mosul in June 2014, has taken place on a battlefield inhabited by civilians. Iraqi forces have now claimed to be largely in control of east Mosul, but in the west of the city an estimated 750,000 civilians are still living under ISIS control.
As the dust from the truck bomb began to settle, civilians started trickling out on to the east Mosul street, which only a week before had been in ISIS hands. A man rolling up his robe against the chilly December air came out of one of the houses carrying a child, then went back inside and helped a tall man whose face was covered in black ash. Another civilian and a soldier helped a family extricate themselves from a shattered house, holding the mother’s hand while leading her over the debris. Everyone carried a bundle of what they could salvage and filed down the street, their only option to go and join the tens of thousands of civilians filling the camps for displaced people set up in the wake of the offensive.
The street was now a mix of fires, puddles of water and crumbled walls. In the middle stood the twisted wreckage of the truck bomb. “Any civilians died here?” asked one soldier. “How would I know?” answered another. No one, not even the Iraqi government, knows how many civilians have been killed in the battle for Mosul.
Bullets, fired by the ISIS troops who had dispatched the truck bomber, flew overhead like whistling birds. “Listen, listen,” one soldier told the other. “They are trying to come closer.”
“Let them come,” his comrade replied.
The two soldiers were joined by a third, still dazed and limping, as they scrambled for cover. The three of them kept firing as the rest of the brigade collected weapons and salvaged what equipment they could. Rasoul stood inspecting the wreckage of his radio car, his face contorted with pain at his lost equipment.
The Mosul brigade of the counter-terrorism force had been using one of the houses on the street as an armory and a makeshift prison. Officers and soldiers were billeted in other civilian houses. Now, the man who had sheltered the two officers in his back room stood at the entrance of his flattened house, his family had survived but the price of his hospitality had been grave.
The brigade’s commander, Lt. Col. Muntadher, known to his men as Fulath, meaning Steel, listened silently as his aide reported how the ISIS truck bomb had driven through supposedly liberated areas. Within 45 minutes of the attack, he and his men drove back to the front in their two remaining vehicles. They were back on the offensive. By the end of that day another 11 of the brigade would be injured and one killed in fighting.
The launch of the battle to liberate Mosul was a political landmark in the fractured politics of Iraq. Kurdish leaders, ever suspicious of Baghdad, allowed army units to cross their areas and sent their peshmerga forces to fight alongside them. Shia paramilitaries were convinced to take a minor role and pledged not to enter the Sunni city. U.S. jets, helicopters and special forces teams worked closely with Iraqi forces on the ground.
There was hope that maybe, just maybe, 14 years after the U.S.-led invasion that had devastated the Iraqi state, the defeat of ISIS might bring an end to the years of conflict.
When the troops reached the outskirts of the city, both Iraqi and international media declared the liberation imminent, but as troops pushed deeper into Mosul, the soldiers were bogged down in tough urban battles, attacked by about 300 suicide car bombs while civilians were left to fend for themselves.
Most of the narrow residential streets in the drive from the brigade’s base to the front line were fortified with objects from cars to rubbish bins and olive trees in an attempt to stop the car bombs. The roads were full of bomb craters filled with mud, the wreckage of cars tossed on the side of the street and civilians wrapped in thick coats against the cold walking up and down, looking for food or fuel. Children waved at or ran alongside the armored trucks in a maddening combination of war and life.
“I have never seen such hard fighting like this one, not because they have good fighters here, no the hardest fighters were in Ramadi, but here it’s maddening to fight amongst the civilians,” said Muntadher. “Our soldiers have to be very careful. We can’t just bomb a neighborhood and then go clear it, we have to fight from house to house and that is costing us men.”
With its educated, relatively wealthy and religiously conservative Sunni population, Mosul was seen with great suspicion, if not outright hostility, by Baghdad before its fall to ISIS. Its social structures had survived the U.S. invasion relatively intact and its Sunni political identity acted as a counterweight to Iraq’s Shia center and the south. The presence of the largely Shia Iraqi army was resented by its residents.
“When ISIS came we saw them as liberators, I have to tell you,” said Fathi, an ironsmith in his early 40s, as he crouched in his small neat living room surrounded by relatives and neighbors.
“The Iraqi army had terrorized us, they blocked neighborhoods, conducted night raids with dogs, treated us like criminals and and then in one afternoon that mighty army collapsed and fled the city leaving their weapons behind.
“You think you have democracy in the west? What we had in the first three weeks after ISIS took Mosul was better, they didn’t stop anyone, you could smoke, you could move freely, but then things changed.”
First ISIS went after the few Shia families, then the Yazidis and Christians. The jihadis next turned against the Sunni population. “We became scared of our own wives and children lest they go denounce us,” Fathi said. “Even with the war life is hundred times better than ISIS, but we are wary of the future.”
Since October, proximity has forced an interdependent relationship between the soldiers and civilians. The civilians rely on the soldiers for protection and whatever help they can get. The soldiers depend on the goodwill of the civilians to find ISIS collaborators.
Muntadher has found himself taking the role of not only an officer, but a civil servant, a policeman, a water supplier. “It is not my job to talk to civilians and make them feel good — my job is fight and defeat the enemy,” he said. “But in 2013 and 2014, the Iraqi army behaved like an occupying force here. I now have a responsibility to give a better image of the army to the people.”