[TAMUZ DISTRICT, MOSUL, IRAQ] – The fight to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group is entering its final stage but is still hampered by the presence of large numbers of civilians trapped in their homes.
In the Tamuz district on the outskirts of western Mosul, Iraqi forces traded fire with remaining ISIS snipers. The crack of rifles and the boom of explosives reverberated through the empty streets. Iraqi soldiers built a barricade of destroyed cars carried to the front lines by construction trucks. They sought to keep media from photographing it, saying it would portray them “negatively,” but they wouldn’t say why.
The Iraqi government wants to complete the reconquest of Mosul before the start of Ramadan, the monthlong Muslim fast, on May 26. But from the front lines it’s not clear that this can happen.
Back in the Tamuz district, ISIS fighters used car bombs, snipers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the battle against soldiers of the Iraqi Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD). This is a densely settled neighborhood, and soldiers are going house to house along the narrow streets and alleys in search of ISIS fighters. Airstrikes here are difficult, but helicopters and fighter jets were heard circling above the area.
Soldiers came back to reload their Humvees with ammunition, and officers listened to their men squawk on the radio about their positions.
One of the commanders for the ERD, Col. Mahdi Abbas, told Yahoo News, “We are advancing,” and said they had gained more than 150 meters of ground in one day. But he admitted that there were many civilians: “The civilians are priority. We take them to a safe area and continue our operations.”
As the smoke and firing subsided, street by street, families emerged from wherever they had found shelter, fleeing toward safety behind government lines.
Tired, dehydrated and hungry, they ran, many with babies in their arms. Their clothes dirty, their faces somber, they feared being hit by ISIS snipers, who have been known to target those fleeing.
In one of the district’s safe areas behind the frontline, one man, who did not want to give his name, told Yahoo News, “There was nothing to eat; sometimes there was just some bread and tea.”
His hand shook as he lit his second cigarette and said that under ISIS, if he had been able to get a cigarette, it would have cost him almost $5, and if he had gotten caught with it, he could have been severely punished: “They would beat you with lashes or kill you.”
A woman held her 7-month year old child, a child soon to be stateless without proper Iraqi identification, and said it was hard to get food and formula for him. A young man said his family had been hungry for days, with nothing but grass to eat.
Two soldiers picked up an elderly woman in a wheelchair and carried her up the hill to a truck. The woman looked frail and exhausted. Families were loaded into trucks as well, women and children first. Away from the frontline, the families would be screened and then sent to camps for the displaced.
At a house being used by the Federal Police as a base in the Tamuz district, one soldier said he had helped a family hide in a basement when they were going through to push ISIS back from the street.
Although the Iraqi troops have fought their way through Tamuz, there are no reliable estimates of how many ISIS fighters are left inside Mosul or how long it may take to dislodge them. With Ramadan coming, the fighting may move to nighttime, as some soldiers may fast during the day. The Iraqi government hopes that it will just take days. The beleaguered civilians can only hope they are right.
—– Ash Gallagher is a journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.
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