EASTERN MOSUL, IRAQ “So I’m a sniper, right, and I see four IS guys approaching. I’m on a roof. I take down two of them. Then the rifle jams. And they’re coming forward. So I make it down the stairs, and I throw a grenade as theyre in the courtyard of the house. One of them’s killed outright. The other’s badly wounded. So he’s lying there, in a bad way, can hardly move, so I disarm him, he has a rifle and also a pistol. He’s calling to his friend, it seems. In Russian. He was a Russian. But the friend isn’t answering because he’s dead. So he looks over at me and he can see I’m making the pistol ready. I don’t speak Russian and I guess he realized the friend wasn’t answering. So he looks at me and he says to me in Arabic ‘Don’t you fear God?’ So I tell him ‘no’ and put two bullets in his brain.”
He shows me a picture of the man he killed on his phone. There is a bushy black beard beneath the shattered skull. Then a picture of a damaged Russian passport found on the body. “He was probably Chechen. Most of the Russian citizens you’ll find with IS aren’t Russians. They’re from the Caucasus,” I say. “He’s Russian,” Zeidan replies, “He was speaking Russian.” I begin to say something else, and then decide not to bother.
We are on the way to the Hay al-Arabi neighborhood, captured from the Islamic State a few days before. Zeidan is on crutches and with one of his arms bandaged. He was wounded in the ferocious fight for the area that took place a few days previously. The neighborhood adjoins the Tigris River, which for now is the line dividing the various forces engaged on behalf of the Iraqi government from the jihadis of IS. We are a curious crew, one British-Israeli journalist (myself), one wounded fighter of the Hashd al-Watani, and a Syrian-Kurdish fixer doing the driving. I have come to check the progress of the campaign to recapture Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State.
The offensive has proceeded slowly. Commencing on October 17th, Iraqi forces reached the outskirts of the city by November 1st. Then the going got tougher. The 8,000 ISIS men in Mosul, facing an attacking force of about ten times that size, proved a ruthless and imaginative enemy. The vehicle convoys of the attacking forces found themselves harried relentlessly by suicide car bombs, careening out of the side streets, halting convoys which would then be strafed with small arms fire, mortars and grenades.
Islamic State used drones in large number for the first time. Quadcopters, commercially available toys – but fitted to carry grenades, or cameras for reconnaissance. The jihadis succeeded in creating a terrifying urban battlespace. The death toll was high, in particular among the black-clad special forces of the Counter Terror Service who were bearing the brunt of the fighting.
On December 13th, the Iraqis paused to consider their strategy. The attack resumed on December 29th, beefed up by 4,000 troops from the Interior Ministry forces known in Iraq as the Federal Police. The tactics had changed. No longer in convoy, the Special Forces now comprised sections of seven men – on foot, and preceded by heavy air activity and artillery fire. The Americans had knocked out the five bridges separating east and west Mosul. The jihadis began to run short on supplies east of the river. The car bombs grew more primitive. Just regular cars filled with explosives now, no longer the armor plated behemoths of the first days. Harder to spot, but a lot easier to destroy when you did.
And so the government forces started to roll up the neighborhoods of east Mosul. And the jihadis fell back to plan their last stand in the narrow alleys and warrens of the western city. That was where it was up to.
Hay al-Arabi was a mess. The huge craters left by the aerial bombing were filled with rainwater. The results of bombing from the air have a way of reminding a person of their own tiny dimensions. The sheer huge destructive power available, and the sense and the fact of the impossibility of escape if your number is written on the bomb.
The fight in Hay al-Arabi had been conducted street by street, and house by house. There were still skeletons of suicide car bombs littering the roads. The people too seemed half dazed. They had a way of staring at you, directly, unflinching for a long time. Neither hostile nor friendly. As though they wanted to ask you a question but could not quite find the words.
In one street a very young man, of about 20, approached us. He was bearded, with a scarf wrapped around his neck and with the usual glazed Mosul look. “Come and see that suicide car over there,” he began in Arabic. “There’s something interesting there.” He was leaning very close to me and I had a sudden fear that this might be one of the “sleepers” that IS had left in the neighborhood, zeroing in on me as a foreigner with a camea. No one else reacted, though, so I followed him over to the remains of the car and looked at where he was pointing, with a nervous smile on his face. “Rijal, rijal (leg)” he said.
And yes, there it was, plainly visible. A black, toasted looking human foot. It had presumably belonged to the suicide bomber who had died while detonating this car. No one had got round to clearing it up yet. “Do you have Facebook?” the young man demanded as we walked away. “I do,” he continued. “Look me up. My name there is ‘loveyoursmile’.”
We left loveyoursmile to his cars and remains and kept moving. Hay al-Arabi was full of similar macabre items of human destruction. Bombed out houses, and rocks strewn across the streets. Black soot from explosions. In the courtyard of one house, more remains from a suicide bombing. Here, the bomber’s body had not been completely destroyed and one could make out a sort of shape in the lump of red flesh, wrapped in what had once been a black uniform.
There was huge damage to a number of civilian houses too. IS used the primitive tactic of burning tyres and oil to create a cloud of black smoke above the skies of the areas they controlled. The intention was to blur visibility for coalition aircraft, making effective targeting more difficult. The result was greater damage to civilian life and property. Of course, the jihadis could turn such losses into propaganda, so from their point of view, such methods were without a negative side. Their own targeting was on the primitive side, too. As a result, there had been damage to civilian houses in eastern Mosul from IS mortar shells falling short.
Eastern Mosul is now divided into areas of control of three forces – the Iraqi Army, the Special Operations Forces, (ISOF) and the Federal Police. The black-clad troops of ISOF have taken on the heavy lifting, and have suffered heavy losses.
The three forces are a study in contrasts. ISOF are the most impressive, the Iraqi Army the least. We caught up with the Najaf Battalion of the Special Forces in the Beker neighborhood of the city, which they had captured from IS a week earlier. Captain Ra’ad Qarim Kasem took us through the mechanics of the battle from his unit’s point of view.
He stressed the crucial role played by coalition air power in destroying the five bridges between west and east Mosul, preventing IS from supplying their fighters east of the river. The jihadis had tried to move across the river by boat in the hours of night. But the destruction of the bridges had led to the gradual depletion of their resources.