Lo­cal in­tel key in house to house bat­tle for Iraq’s Mo­sul

‘We can­not al­low this’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

When Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Mo­sul dis­cov­ered that Ahmed’s brother had served in the army, they went to his house, pulled him into the street, and shot him dead as his par­ents watched.

Now, it was time for re­venge, and af­ter two years of fer­ry­ing the ex­trem­ists around as a taxi driver, Ahmed had plenty of in­for­ma­tion to of­fer spe­cial forces at a com­mand post in an east Mo­sul apart­ment on Fri­day.

“They’re in this church, and only God knows what goes on in there,” he told in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, point­ing out map co­or­di­nates dur­ing a half-hour ses­sion. They met in a liv­ing room used to re­ceive res­i­dents just a few blocks away from the bat­tle, some seek­ing help, others be­ing ques­tioned, while the un­lucky ones faced in­ter­ro­ga­tion or stern rep­ri­mands for var­i­ous in­frac­tions. Ahmed asked his full name be with­held for fear of reprisals.

With heavy weapons less use­ful in the dense ur­ban al­ley­ways of Iraq’s sec­ond city, lo­cal in­tel­li­gence is grow­ing in value. Spe­cial forces on the front lines are beef­ing up ef­forts to win civil­ians’ trust, pass­ing out food and medicine and glean­ing real-time in­for­ma­tion about the ex­trem­ists they are fight­ing in pitched, house-to-house com­bat.

Clas­sic coun­terin­sur­gency roles

In do­ing so, of­fi­cers are also tak­ing on clas­sic coun­terin­sur­gency roles, be­com­ing ac­tors of lo­cal gov­er­nance, ad­dress­ing griev­ances and dis­pens­ing swift bat­tle­field jus­tice. The of­fen­sive to free Mo­sul of IS mil­i­tants is now in its sec­ond month, and progress has slowed as troops try to avoid mass civil­ian ca­su­al­ties that could give the im­pres­sion the Shi­ite-heavy mil­i­tary was rid­ing roughshod over the city’s ma­jor­ity Sun­nis.

While tens of thou­sands of civil­ians have fled the fight­ing, over a mil­lion re­main in their homes - some fol­low­ing of­fi­cial re­quests by the govern­ment to stay there, others pre­fer­ring the risk of cross­fire to spend­ing the win­ter as an anony­mous num­ber in cold dis­place­ment camps.

In the Bakr neigh­bor­hood, parts of which are still con­tested, civil­ians lined the streets. Smil­ing chil­dren waved and greeted the troops, while younger men and el­ders watched con­voys of Humvees pass with an air of skep­ti­cism.

Au­to­matic ri­fle fire and heavy ma­chine guns blasted all day from both sides, while mor­tars lobbed shells across neigh­bor­hoods, the city’s re­lent­less sound­track. In the dusty waste­land to the east, a fam­ily pushed a rel­a­tive’s body on a cart back to­ward an aid sta­tion.

Part of the in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing is rough - in the Samah neigh­bor­hood, sol­diers ar­rested at least two sus­pected IS mil­i­tants, wrap­ping Tshirts over their heads and beat­ing them in the street as they dragged them off. Not ev­ery com­bat­ant shares the govern­ment’s op­ti­mism that sec­tar­ian rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can hap­pen here. “Why do you speak to them? They’re all (IS),” one sol­dier said of civil­ians leav­ing homes to visit rel­a­tives fur­ther from the cross­fire.

But the softer ap­proach, as ad­vanc­ing forces have learned count­less times in modern war­fare, can yield more value, and keep­ing civil­ians on one’s side has be­come a ma­jor part of op­er­a­tions for Iraq’s spe­cial forces, known of­fi­cially as the Counter Ter­ror­ism Forces.

Speak­ing in the Bakr apart­ment, Lt. Col. Ali Hus­sein said his forces have strict or­ders to take care of civil­ians to win the peace, but that they went a bit fur­ther, buy­ing medicine for the old and in­firm. “We pay with our own money, it’s the hu­mane thing to do,” he said. “It’s a mod­est neigh­bor­hood and we have to keep a good rep­u­ta­tion and show the civil­ians we are on the same side - Daesh has brain­washed them for two years,” he said, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for the group.

IS forces as well, driven un­der­ground and un­able to group into for­ma­tions for risk of at­tract­ing airstrikes, also re­al­ize the im­por­tance of in­for­ma­tion. On Fri­day alone, they sent three re­con­nais­sance drones to scout po­si­tions in the dis­trict - the same amount as over the pre­vi­ous two weeks. “It was a big push, much more than nor­mal,” Hus­sein said, show­ing off a dam­aged com­mer­cially avail­able DJI Phantom 4 drone the size of a record player.

“We shot down two”

Fight­ing in built-up ar­eas has slowed to a slog, as small num­bers of IS snipers and sui­cide bombers in heav­ily-ar­mored ve­hi­cles in­fil­trate neigh­bor­hoods to sur­prise troops and stunt ad­vances. Bat­tles play out on rooftops with IS forces holed up in build­ings just a street or two away, with troops of­ten jump­ing walls be­tween houses to reach their po­si­tions.

On pa­trol, Iraqi forces here said that IS was now send­ing in two cars at a time packed with ex­plo­sives. The first one de­stroys the gi­ant sand bar­ri­ers the army builds on side streets to cre­ate safe zones, and the sec­ond one races through the opened pas­sage to at­tack troops. As a re­sponse, the spe­cial forces now line up parked civil­ian cars in front of the bar­ri­ers.

Troops also lis­ten in on IS ra­dio traf­fic, where they can some­times hear the ex­trem­ists di­rect­ing sui­cide bombers who can’t see through the heavy ar­mor plat­ing pro­tect­ing their mov­ing ve­hi­cles. Many of the di­alects are for­eign, in­clud­ing Gulf Arab and Egyp­tian.

As Hus­sein walked the streets with his troops, a man ap­proached, be­seech­ing the sol­diers for help to pro­tect his fam­ily on the IS-con­trolled side. Af­ter a brief stand-off, and the man lift­ing his shirt to show he wasn’t wear­ing ex­plo­sives, he be­came the lat­est in­former.

“They are knock­ing down walls so they can move house to house, and they’re ap­proach­ing this line,” said the man, who also asked that his name be with­held for fear of IS reprisals. “They dig all night, we can hardly sleep.” Af­ter sun­set, IS was burn­ing tires and homes to ob­scure night vi­sion scopes used by the spe­cial forces.

The pa­trol went to the neigh­bors to con­firm the story, lec­tur­ing the man for cross­ing over the front line via a rooftop but let­ting him go af­ter lo­cals vouched for him. Speak­ing with el­ders, Hus­sein told fam­i­lies to stay in­doors and ex­plained that cars must have their tires flat­tened or be con­sid­ered a se­cu­rity risk.

An­other man was scolded for try­ing to break into a house, claim­ing his un­cle had sent him to se­cure be­long­ings. Sol­diers pushed him by the shirt col­lar to the area’s de facto gov­er­nor, who waved him off af­ter some an­gry words.

“We can­not al­low this,” said Hus­sein. “When civil­ians re­turn they must not think that the spe­cial forces looted their homes.” — AP

MO­SUL, Iraq: Iraqi spe­cial forces sol­diers pass civil­ians, sit­ting in the back yard of their houses used in fight­ing against the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, in the Bakr front line neigh­bor­hood on Satur­day. — AP

MO­SUL, Iraq: Iraqi Spe­cial Forces pa­rade with Staff Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ab­dul Ghani Al-Asadi, com­man­der of the Counter-Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice (CTS) in a re­cently re­cap­tured dis­trict of south­east Mo­sul, yes­ter­day. — AFP

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