Fi­nal push in Mo­sul is a test of Iraqi forces’ best

Tens of thou­sands of civil­ians are packed into an area de­fended by Is­lamic State fight­ers, snipers and car-bombers

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY THOMAS GIB­BONS-NEFF AND MUSTAFA SALIM thomas.gib­bons­neff@wash­post.com

mo­sul, iraq — Af­ter mak­ing rapid gains in a new of­fen­sive, Iraqi forces are close to chok­ing off the last bas­tion of sev­eral hun­dred Is­lamic State fight­ers dug into the twist­ing al­ley­ways and nar­row streets of Mo­sul’s Old City.

The fi­nal push will be led by Iraq’s U.S.-trained Counter Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice units, the same forces that en­tered the eastern reaches of the city in Oc­to­ber when the bat­tle to re­take the city be­gan, of­fi­cers said. The plan in­volves clear­ing the last few neigh­bor­hoods north of the Old City and sur­round­ing the squaremile-wide neigh­bor­hood.

With tens of thou­sands of civil­ians packed into an area de­fended by Is­lamic State fight­ers, snipers and car-bombers, the bat­tle could quickly turn into a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

Some Iraqi mil­i­tary com­man­ders say they are try­ing to fin­ish the bat­tle in the next two weeks, be­fore the holy month of Ra­madan be­gins and many soldiers be­gin fast­ing dur­ing the day. Yet with the Is­lamic State still doggedly fight­ing for each block, it is un­clear whether the cam­paign will end any­time soon.

Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, the com­man­der of two coun­tert­er­ror­ism task forces, es­ti­mates that there are be­tween 250 and 350 Is­lamic State fight­ers, many of them French and Rus­sian, in the Old City, along with more than 200,000 civil­ians.

Some of the coun­tert­er­ror­ism troops, how­ever, es­ti­mate the Is­lamic State pres­ence at more than 1,000 fight­ers, given the stiff re­sis­tance they are still fac­ing on the ground.

The Old City holds sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance: It was here, at the Great Mosque, that the Is­lamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, de­clared a “caliphate” in 2014 across parts of Iraq and Syria.

The neigh­bor­hood also presents a height­ened chal­lenge for the units. Known as the CTS, the force was orig­i­nally formed to work as an elite raid force af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sion in 2003 but grad­u­ally turned into the Iraqi mil­i­tary’s pre­mier of­fen­sive in­fantry unit af­ter the rise of the Is­lamic State. Aridhi and other of­fi­cers said they are pre­pared to at­tack the Old City but will have to adjust some of their tac­tics as they clear the tiny streets and al­leys.

In the past, the ad­vanc­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism troops have fought pri­mar­ily from their ve­hi­cles, block by block, me­thod­i­cally us­ing their Humvees and ar­mored bull­doz­ers to seal off a street be­fore tak­ing the sur­round­ing build­ings on foot in an al­most grid-like fash­ion. As a block is cleared, civil­ians of­ten stream out of their homes, slow­ing the ad­vance while troops usher them to safety.

Lise Grande, the U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian co­or­di­na­tor for Iraq, said in a state­ment Thurs­day that the United Na­tions ex­pects more than 200,000 peo­ple to flee as Iraqi troops close in on the Old City, a fig­ure she called “alarm­ing.”

In the Old City, the mod­i­fied D8 bull­doz­ers that have been es­sen­tial in stop­ping car bombs and clear­ing ob­sta­cles set up by the Is­lamic State will be all but use­less, likely forced to re­main be­hind on main thor­ough­fares while the com­man­dos move on foot. The Is­lamic State has in­creas­ingly dis­patched mo­tor­cy­cles rigged with ex­plo­sives and is ex­pected to use them ex­ten­sively in the Old City.

Brig. Gen. Ali Ja­mal, the head lo­gis­tics of­fi­cer for the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces, has re­quested smaller bull­doz­ers from the U.S.-led coali­tion but has re­ceived only three, all lack­ing ar­mor, he said. Since the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign, his forces have lost eight of the tracked ve­hi­cles, their TOP: Dis­placed Iraqis wait for wa­ter and food in west Mo­sul. ABOVE: Iraqi rapid-re­sponse forces ar­rive to fight Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. Some Iraqi com­man­ders want to fin­ish the bat­tle be­fore the holy month of Ra­madan, when many soldiers will be­gin daily fast­ing. twisted hulks some­times dragged back to head­quar­ters and aban­doned in other parts of the city. On Tues­day, three bull­dozer driv­ers were wounded by car bombs and snipers, forc­ing the troops to pause their ad­vance un­til fresh ones could be sent from other units.

One of the wounded driv­ers, Sgt. Mo­hammed Ali, rammed a sui­cide ve­hi­cle while help­ing clear the Ar Rafa’ l neigh­bor­hood. Just be­fore the car ex­ploded, Ali pushed it to­ward a nearby wall, a mo­ment he cap­tured in a cell­phone video that went vi­ral. He re­ceived only mi­nor in­juries from the shrap­nel and spent the next day be­hind the lines show­ing the video to re­porters.

In ad­di­tion to the loss of the bull­doz­ers, the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces will likely have to rely less on coali­tion airstrikes to clear the Old City. U.S. and other coali­tion forces have been ac­cused of killing thou­sands of civil­ians dur­ing their air cam­paign over Iraq and Syria, and claims of er­rant strikes have only in­creased since Iraqi forces en­tered Mo­sul.

The air sup­port has been es­sen­tial in help­ing the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces push through the city with­out suf­fer­ing heavy ca­su­al­ties, a ne­ces­sity as the unit is ex­pected to con­tinue clear­ing parts of west­ern Iraq af­ter the fall of Mo­sul, ac­cord­ing to coali­tion ad­vis­ers who work with the unit.

With the Is­lamic State’s propen­sity to use hu­man shields and the sheer num­ber of civil­ians left in the Old City, any type of airstrike will have to be heav­ily vet­ted to en­sure that only Is­lamic State fight­ers are tar­geted. In March, a U.S. airstrike, launched at the re­quest of the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces, killed up­ward of 100 peo­ple in the al-Ja­dida neigh­bor­hood of Mo­sul. The coali­tion is still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dent.

Col. Arkan Fad­hil, a bat­tal­ion com­man­der who works with U.S. and Aus­tralian spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops to help call in airstrikes, said the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces will prob­a­bly lean more heav­ily on pre­planned tar­gets be­fore they start ad­vanc­ing into the Old City. It is un­clear how that will work in prac­tice, es­pe­cially if the Is­lamic State at­tempts to take ad­van­tage of the area’s close quar­ters and tries to iso­late and over­run small groups of ad­vanc­ing Iraqi forces.

“We’re ready to go into the Old City,” Arkan said. “We’re just wait­ing on a task­ing or­der.”

FADEL SENNA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

ARI JALAL/REUTERS

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