ISIS not leaving quietly in Mosul
Victory declared but shells still flying; report cites civilian toll
MOSUL, Iraq — Sporadic clashes broke out Tuesday in Mosul, a day after Iraq’s prime minister declared “total victory” over the Islamic State extremist group, with several airstrikes hitting the Old City neighborhood that was the scene of the battle’s final days.
Plumes of smoke rose as Islamic State shells landed near Iraqi positions, and heavy gunfire could be heard on the western edge of the Old City.
The clashes underscored the dangers still posed by the militants after Iraqi forces announced they had regained full control of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, three years after it was seized by extremists bent on building a global caliphate.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International warned in a report Tuesday that the conflict in Mosul has created a “civilian catastrophe,” with the extremists carrying out forced displacement and summary killings and using civilians as human shields.
The report also detailed violations by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition.
“The scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives during the military operation to retake Mosul must immediately be publicly acknowledged at the highest levels of government in Iraq and states that are part of the U.S.-led coalition,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s research director for the Mideast.
The report, which covers the first five months of this year, notes how Islamic State fighters moved civilians with them around the city, preventing them from escaping and creating battle spaces with dense civilian populations while “Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition failed to adapt their tactics.”
The Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition “continued to use imprecise, explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated urban environments,” Amnesty stated, adding that some violations may constitute war crimes.
As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi prepared Monday to declare victory against the Islamic State in Mosul, millions of leaflets fluttered through the skies with a promise from the government to its people that the city would never be alone again.
Across the country, the party had already started. There was dancing in the streets of Baghdad. In the southern city of Basra, fireworks crackled late into the night.
Defeat in the northern city is a heavy blow for the Islamic State, robbing the group of one of its most important strongholds.
But viewed from the ground, Iraq’s victory is a messy business.
No one knows how many people have died in nine grueling months of urban warfare. Half the city’s population has been displaced, and across Mosul’s western districts, the most populous neighborhoods have been shattered.
Sitting still and alone in the chaos of an aid distribution point this week, Shaimaa, 17, said she had escaped the fighting alone.
Her three brothers were hauled off to an Islamic State prison last year and remain missing. Her sister died in a bombing.
As for her parents: “There was an airstrike,” she said, and that was the last time she saw her mother. “I saw my father’s body in the rubble and I walked away. We got our city back, but there is nothing for me in it.”
Families around her said they had lost someone to an airstrike or Islamic State shelling. Sometimes that meant one child; other times it meant five.
In taking back the city, Iraqi security forces first took the eastern half. Then they moved on the more densely populated west, relying more heavily on U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and taking heavy casualties as they went.
The eastern districts, meanwhile, have sprung back to life. Fruit-sellers line the roads, peddling melons and mulberries in the heat of the day. And shops run a roaring trade, packed at lunchtime, and bustling with life as the sun sets.
But cross the Tigris River heading west, and the landscape shatters into an ugly sea of broken buildings.
In the Old City, a final redoubt for Islamic State militants this week, it can be hard to tell where one structure ends and another begins.
The only way through some alleyways is over the tops of those homes. Mixed in the rubble are remnants of the lives of the former inhabitants: baby clothes, wheelchairs, a cheese grater. The stench of rotting flesh suggests the occupants remain there, too — buried, somewhere, deep under the rubble.
On the eastern bank of the Tigris River, an old fairground has been turned into a screening point to stop Islamic State fighters from leaving among the civilians. Inside an old bumper-car rink, dozens of men sat in rows last week and waited for their judgment. Military intelligence officers in balaclavas sporadically moved among them to pull out an evacuee accused of working with the militants.
Some went quietly. Others wanted a fight.
“I swear I only prayed in their mosque. I have nothing to do with them,” shouted one man, his back covered in what appeared to be fresh welts.
Speaking from behind his face covering, an officer waved for his colleagues to drag the man away.
“You were walking through the streets with your gun. We saw you,” he said. And then the man hung his head and cried.
Smoke from an airstrike on Islamic State positions rises Tuesday over the Old City area of Mosul in northern Iraq.