Un­con­ven­tional war

Bat­tle for Mo­sul illustrates the chal­lenges of fight­ing the Is­lamic State mo­sul, iraq » As the fight for the Iraqi city of Mo­sul drags on, many might ask: Why has it taken the com­bined mil­i­taries of the United States and Iraq— backed by an in­ter­na­tional

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Dan Perry and Susannah Ge­orge The As­so­ci­ated Press

Don­ald Trump raised the ques­tion dur­ing his cam­paign, promis­ing to turn up the heat against the Is­lamic State if he be­came pres­i­dent. Now the grow­ing controversy over the high num­ber of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties be­lieved caused by re­cent U. S. airstrikes has touched on a ma­jor part of the an­swer: The mil­i­tants are min­gled among tens of thou­sands of civil­ians in Mo­sul and are will­ing to take the pop­u­la­tion down with them.

In­evitably, the more force brought to bear to crush the fight­ers, the greater the dan­ger civil­ians will be killed.

To avoid that, strikes must be more sur­gi­cal and more cau­tious, and the bat­tle turns to street- by- street fight­ing where the tech­no­log­i­cal edge of­ten is neu­tral­ized. Min­i­miz­ing civil­ian deaths is more than just a hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cern: Heavy blood­shed can fuel pub­lic re­sent­ment that pushes some to join mil­i­tant groups.

An­other fac­tor is whether the ex­trem­ists have sup­port fro­mat least part of the pop­u­la­tion. It’s even fur­ther com­pli­cated if they can claim to be fight­ing for na­tional lib­er­a­tion — as, for ex­am­ple, with the Ha­mas group in its bat­tles with Is­rael in Gaza. In Iraq and Syria, the Is­lamic State clearly holds the pop­u­la­tion hostage in many cases, but it also seeks to sway some sup­port by claim­ing to de­fend Sun­nis against a mostly Shi­ite force from Bagh­dad.

Af­ter a March 17 explosion that res­i­dents say killed at least 100 peo­ple in Mo­sul, the U. S. mil­i­tary ac­knowl­edged an airstrike was in­volved. But the top com­man­der of U. S. forces in Iraq said in­ves­ti­ga­tions may re­veal amore com­pli­cated ex­pla­na­tion, in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that mil­i­tants rigged the build­ing with ex­plo­sives af­ter forc­ing civil­ians in­side.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Town send said re­cent civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in Mo­sul were “fairly pre­dictable” given the densely pop­u­lated ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods the Is­lamic State fight­ers are de­fend­ing against Iraqi troops.

Over the past 2 ½ years, Iraqi forces backed by U. S. spe­cial forces and coali­tion airstrikes have man­aged to push the Is­lamic State out of most of the ter­ri­tory they over­ran in the sum­mer of 2014— re­tak­ing three ma­jor cities and nu­mer­ous smaller com­mu­ni­ties. The fight for Mo­sul, launched in mid- Oc­to­ber, has been the long­est bat­tle yet.

With each fight, the Is­lamic State has adapted its use of civil­ians as hu­man shields, cre­at­ing in­creas­ingly deadly bat­tle­fields.

In Tikrit and Sin­jar, the Is­lamic State let the pop­u­la­tion flee early on, al­low­ing Iraqi and coali­tion forces to use airstrikes lib­er­ally and ar­tillery to re­take the ar­eas by au­tumn 2015.

The Is­lamic State then tight­ened its grip on other cities and towns. It locked down Ra­madi with check­points to pre­vent civil­ians from flee­ing. Only those with se­ri­ous health con­di­tions were al­lowed out— and only if they left be­hind a rel­a­tive, prop­erty or thou­sands of dol­lars to guar­an­tee their re­turn.

Af­ter Iraqi forces punched into Ra­madi, flee­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers forced civil­ians to go with them to thwart airstrikes. Mov­ing west along the Euphrates River, Iraq’s mil­i­tary re­sponded to the use of hu­man shields by largely empt­ing towns of their pop­u­la­tions as they re­took ter­ri­tory. The mas­sive dis­place­ment re­sulted in hu­man­i­tar­ian crises. Thou­sands were left with­out shel­ter and lit­tle food or wa­ter in desert camps.

So the gov­ern­ment changed tac­tics. It asked civil­ians to stay in their homes, a de­ci­sion that was con­tro­ver­sial with com­man­ders faced with clear­ing mil­i­tants from dense res­i­den­tial ar­eas.

In Mo­sul, an es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion peo­ple were in the city when Iraqi forces breached its eastern edge. Is­lamic State fight­ers fired from the rooftops of homes where civil­ians shel­tered, tar­get­ing those who fled with mor­tars and gun­fire. In denser neigh­bor­hoods, even pre­ci­sion mu­ni­tions in­flicted heavy ca­su­al­ties. In western Mo­sul, Is­lamic State fight­ers forced civil­ians into ex­plo­sives­rigged homes then took up po­si­tions on the roofs, Iraqi and coali­tion of­fi­cials said.

Asim­i­lar bat­tle looms in the Is­lamic State group’s Syr­ian strong­hold of Raqqa.

Fed­eral po­lice­men fire to­ward the po­si­tions of Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists in the old city dur­ing fight­ing on the western side of Mo­sul, Iraq, on Thurs­day. Felipe Dana, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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