Iraqi troops face brutal ‘house by house’ fight in final push against Isis in Mosul

Bethan McKernan
A member of the Iraqi counter terrorism forces carries his weapon during clashes with Isis militants in west Mosul, Iraq, on March 13, 2017: Reuters

Iraqi forces are facing the final battle to defeat Isis in the country for good as elite troops engage in a gruelling building-by-building fight in the last few extremist-controlled neighbourhoods of Mosul.

Iraqi coalition forces, supported by a US-led international coalition, have succeeded in retaking the side of the city east of the River Tigris that cuts through it, and 30 per cent of west Mosul, after more than 100 days of bitter fighting.

The remaining Isis fighters - thought to have at the most numbered between 6,000 - 10,000 men - are now heavily outnumbered by 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and militia units.

“Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they're going to die there,” US envoy to the anti-Isis coalition Brett McGurk told reporters on Sunday.

Access to the last main road out of the city has also been cut.

Removing the jihadis from Iraq’s second largest city - which it has controlled since the summer of 2014 - will effectively spell the end of Isis, as a land-holding force in the country, driving the remnants of the group back to their de facto capital of Raqqa in neighbouring Syria.

But the last areas of the city are being fiercely defended by Isis snipers, as well as roadside and suicide bombs and artillery fire. Isis’ use of an extensive tunnel network and the densely populated old city and city centre have also made the going tough for coalition troops, which are seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

“The fighting is at much closer quarters. It was street-by-street and now it's house-by-house,” Iraqi commando Alaa Shaker, a member of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), told Reuters.

“We are often literally in the same house, on the roof, and [Isis] is downstairs. Sometimes we drop grenades. If there are civilians, families in the homes, we shout to them to take cover inside a room.”

The fighting since October 2016 has come at a heavy price for both Mosul’s civilians and Iraqi troops. Thousands of Iraqi civilians have died in the fighting since October, and a total of more than 200,000 in total displaced from their homes.

At least 6,878 civilians were killed in violence mainly inflicted by Isis around the country last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) has said.

Many Mosul residents report their loved ones have died as a result of friendly fire rather than Isis’s warfare tactics.

AirWars, a UK-based non-profit monitoring the effect of anti-Isis air strikes on civilians, said last week that they believed 370 civilians died in US-led coalition bombing in just the first week of March alone.

The Iraqi army has refused to release further troop casualty figures since a December report from the UN which found that almost 2,000 had been killed in just the first six weeks of fighting.

While losing control of Mosul will be a decisive blow to Isis, the jihadi organisation is expected to pose a renewed threat in the form of an insurgency war against Iraqi forces.

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