Battling Islamic State A Visit to the Mosul Front

The fight against Islamic State in western Mosul is chaotic and brutal, with up to 200,000 civilians still trapped in the IS-held Old Town. DER SPIEGEL visited the front in Iraq to see how the battle is progressing.
A girl walks through the destroyed streets of Mosul.

A girl walks through the destroyed streets of Mosul.

Foto: Jacob Russel

Every morning, as soon as the sun comes up, they arrive by the thousands, scurrying out of the protection offered by the ruined buildings or sidling through the shadows in destroyed streets. Some, as though nothing more could happen to them after having escaped the hell of western Mosul, walk indifferently down the middle of the main streets. It is an exodus of the exhausted and distraught from a city that was once Iraq's second largest -- a rich metropolis that has been populated since biblical times.

They set off at night, some of them having been shepherded past roadblocks by corrupt Islamic State fighters but most sneaking through the ruins. Their goal is the Baghdad roundabout, a couple kilometers south of the city center. Everyone in the city knows about this escape route, say those who are fleeing, and that buses are waiting there to bring them to safety.

We are traveling against the current, intent on reaching the part of the city where Islamic State (IS) is fighting its increasingly desperate rearguard battle. The terrorist militia took control of the city in June 2014 as it was expanding its "caliphate," while Iraqi troops launched efforts to take back IS-controlled territory in October of last year. Now, IS has been pushed back on almost all fronts; and in Mosul, the terrorist group in late May is clinging on to little more than the historic city center  on the west bank of the Tigris. According to the United Nations, up to 200,000 people are still trapped in the IS-held core of the city, hunkering down in their cellars and basements. They only risk fleeing once IS pulls back, but even then, many remain out of fear of IS snipers and looters -- or because of a lack of alternatives.

On this morning, three thudding detonations echo through the city within just a half-hour, each accompanied by a gigantic column of smoke. IS suicide bombers. According to an Iraqi army count, 850 cars, trucks or tankers full of explosives have detonated in and near Mosul since October.

We are accompanying a unit of the Iraqi Federal Police in the Ogeidat quarter of the city. On foot, we step over the remains of walls and pass destroyed automobiles. Sometimes, we have to sprint, at others, we must sneak head down along the rubble -- because IS snipers could still be anywhere. Ultimately, we reach the final position before the front where, in the second floor of a building, one can look to the north through small holes in the wall. "That's where Daesh is," says a sniper, using the Arabic acronym for IS, without taking his eyes off the destroyed cityscape outside. Every couple of minutes, he fires a shot: Perhaps he had seen someone move, but it could also have been just a heat shimmer.

'We Told Them We Were Starving'

But even just behind the front, well within the range of IS mortar fire, there are people. Men appear from half-destroyed homes and seem happy that someone wants to listen to their stories , and they take us from house to house.

"Four Daesh fighters used to live here, Russians with young wives," one says. "They were extremely brutal and they would kick us if we dared even to speak with them. When our wives no longer even had milk for our children, we went to them anyway and told them we were starving." The man says the IS response was: "When the Prophet was starving, he laid stones on his belly. That is what you should do!" They refused to share their supplies. A few days later, the men said, the IS fighters disappeared. Did they flee or were they killed by the missile that struck the house? The men merely shrug their shoulders.

A few meters further on is the former Turkish Consulate, an ancient contorted building with a large garden. That's where they buried Mohammed and Akram Chudr. "The two saved us," says their cousin Rifai. When an IS commando appeared to occupy the building, the two brothers refused to let them pass. One of the IS fighters, from Saudi Arabia, was wearing an explosive belt -- it was insane to stand up to them. But 62 people were hiding in the basement and it was clear that IS snipers on the roof would mean that everyone hiding below would have to die. A scuffle ensued before a low-flying Iraqi plane appeared and fired at the group, whereupon the explosive belt and hand grenades belonging to the IS men exploded -- that, at least, is what family members of the two brothers believe happened. When they emerged from their hiding place, everybody involved in the scuffle was dead.

Akram and Mohammed Chudr, two unknown Iraqi heroes. Their cousin begins looking for pictures of the two and shows half-burned body parts. The most barbaric part of the pictures is that such images have become completely normal. Finally, another relative says shyly: "Perhaps they would like to see a picture of how Mohammed looked when he was alive?" But the lieutenant from the Federal Police who is accompanying us says it's time to go, it is too dangerous to stay. IS, he says, still has spies everywhere.

'The Dying Will Begin'

Western Mosul is hell on Earth, and it is a densely populated hell. The fact that tens of thousands haven't died of hunger or thirst is only due to the preparations taken by residents. Iraqis always expect the worst, and all too often they are right to do so. Months ago, the people of Mosul began hoarding and storing everything they could get their hands on: rice, bulgur, beans, olives and water.

Members of the Iraqi Federal Police force just outside of Mosul

Members of the Iraqi Federal Police force just outside of Mosul

Foto: Jacob Russel

"We could have held out for a total of three months without having to leave our homes," says Rifai, the man who showed us photos of his dead cousins on his smartphone. He says those still stuck in the Old Town of Mosul can still survive for a couple of weeks. "But then, the dying will begin."

Western Mosul is in the process of becoming the victim of a deadly conflation  of interests. Two groups that otherwise eye each other with significant mistrust -- the U.S. military and Shiite militias, heavily armed by Iran -- are in agreement that the final battle against IS should take place in western Mosul. To that end, they have broken with the discreet tradition upheld thus far in this war of leaving an escape route open to most IS fighters and their families. They did so in both Tikrit and Fallujah, as well as in al-Bab and recently in Tabqa in Syria, thus shortening the battles and limiting the casualties suffered by the liberators. But that is not the case here. Around 1,200 IS fighters are surrounded, many of them together with their families, and they will very likely not leave the city alive.

But the Task Forces 1 and 2 of the Golden Division, which are leading the offensive, are also thought to have only 1,200 able-bodied troops between them. Their losses have been significant. Which explains why the Federal Police force is now manning an entire sector of the front, despite not having been intended for such a role. Their officers prefer ordering artillery or air support rather than advancing into the inferno on foot.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 22/2017 (May 27, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

Indeed, the decisive front against the world's most powerful terror organization is much more chaotic than insinuated by the generals, with their constant reports of advances.

In western Mosul, it isn't just the thundering detonations that we find unsettling. It is also the slight vibrations of the ground that indicate just how close to us the explosions are. But the Iraqi army soldiers only laugh: They are "outgoing," they say, using the English term. "Almost certainly the mortar positions of our comrades a couple of blocks over."

A Different Target

But then, a humming noise can be heard slowly approaching and a point becomes visible in the sky. "A Daesh drone," the soldiers say as they take shelter. The homemade drones are outfitted with one or two kilos of explosives along with a camera and are steered remotely by IS. A soldier tries to reach the next position by radio to request that the drone be shot down. But the drone flies onward: Either it didn't see us or it is heading for a different target.

Map: Mosul area still held by Islamic State

Map: Mosul area still held by Islamic State


The army's Golden Division, the Emergency Response Division (ERD) and the Interior Ministry's Federal Police force are all involved in the western Mosul offensive, with each group having been assigned to cover a section of the front. But communication between the three forces is sometimes temporarily interrupted and coordinated operations are often impossible. In addition, Shiite militias frequently appear near the front in their pickups, U.S. Special Forces  show up or American aircraft make bombing runs over the city. In one Golden Division camp, a group of French elite soldiers are in the process of performing maintenance on their vehicles. The men in camouflage, their uniforms free of badges indicating rank, are there on an entirely different mission. They are on the search for French citizens among the IS fighters.

Islamic State doesn't have a chance in this fight, but the terrorist army knows how to take advantage of the weak links in this fragile coalition. A short time later, when we were 30 kilometers south of the front in territory that should have been safe, we suddenly heard gunfire as we drove past the Federal Police force's provincial headquarters in the town of Hamam al-Alil. Some of the police took cover while others continued wandering around as though nothing was happening. Was it real? Or just an exercise?

We decided to keep going and later learned that an IS commando dressed in ERD uniforms managed to get into the base without being checked and jumped out of their car. According to reports, two of them blew themselves up while the others opened fire on the confused police officers. Officially, three policemen were killed, but unofficial sources say it was closer to 20. Who is friend and who is foe? Even security personnel sometimes can't tell the difference.

Dented Pots and Cracked Bowls

But even those who have been liberated from the IS can't be completely sure of their safety. Last fall, an ERD unit began indiscriminately arresting people in the towns and villages south of Mosul, torturing and killing them and raping the women. Iraqi photographer Ali Arkady, who had been with the unit since October, documented their crimes. His images made headlines last week after they were published by DER SPIEGEL on May 19 in cooperation with the U.S. broadcaster ABC, which ran the images last Thursday. Baghdad has announced it will launch an investigation, but at the same time, an arrest warrant has been issued for Arkady on the basis of sham accusations.

In contrast to the ERD, the Iraqi army has thus far treated civilians well inside of Mosul. Nobody knows, however, what will happen to the residents there once IS is defeated. Neither is it clear who will take control of the city.

For the time being, such questions are of no concern to those currently fleeing western Mosul. Exhausted and relieved to have escaped with their lives, they arrive at the Baghdad roundabout carrying their belongings in plastic bags, suitcases or backpacks. Only one elderly woman shows up with a foam mattress, dented pots, cracked plastic bowls and an old stirring spoon. None of the bus drivers want to let her board. A young soldier tries to tell her that she will be given new pots and bowls at the camp, but she refuses to listen. "We have nothing," she tells him angrily. "We can't lose anything. We've never had anything! We have no education, we are poor and at the mercy of others. We cheered for Saddam. We cheered for IS. We'll cheer for anyone."

The soldier gives up. And finally, the elderly woman is able to find a bus driver willing to take her and her dented pots out of Mosul.

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