Blood­ied and bat­tered, Mo­sul’s Old City waits for its sal­va­tion

In last re­gion con­trolled by ISIS, res­i­dents brace for mil­i­tants’ last stand

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LOVE­DAY MOR­RIS AND MUSTAFA SALIM love­day.mor­ris@wash­post.com

mo­sul, iraq — In the last square mile of Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory in this city, ter­ri­fied fam­i­lies trapped in their base­ments are brac­ing for a fi­nal fe­ro­cious show­down.

As many as 150,000 res­i­dents are crammed into Mo­sul’s Old City, as Is­lamic State fight­ers for­tify their po­si­tions in the warren of nar­row streets and al­ley­ways.

With no safe drink­ing wa­ter, sick­ness is spread­ing. Food and medicine run dan­ger­ously low. Mor­tars fired by se­cu­rity forces try­ing to dis­lodge the mil­i­tants “rain down,” while airstrikes tear down build­ings in the packed neighborhood, one res­i­dent said by phone from the be­sieged area.

But at­tempt­ing to es­cape is just as dan­ger­ous, with mil­i­tants de­ter­mined to keep civil­ians as hu­man shields and gun­ning down hun­dreds who have tried to flee in re­cent weeks — men, women and chil­dren.

“I think the chance of us dy­ing on our way out of the city is higher than the chance of us dy­ing in our houses,” the res­i­dent said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of Is­lamic State reprisals. “We are liv­ing in a state of hor­ror and siege.”

The pun­ish­ing eight-month bat­tle for the city has taken place in heav­ily pop­u­lated neigh­bor­hoods, leav­ing en­tire streets in ru­ins. Is­lamic State mil­i­tants are now nearly en­tirely con­tained in the Old City, where more hard­ened for­eign fight­ers have ar­rived in re­cent weeks as their ter­ri­tory shrinks, res­i­dents say.

In the mid­dle of the his­toric city cen­ter lies the Great Mosque of al-Nuri with its iconic lean­ing minaret, where Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi de­clared a caliphate three years ago. The fight­ers have hun­kered down in sur­round­ing al­leys — nine or 10 in each, ac­cord­ing to an­other res­i­dent who re­cently fled — and zip around on mo­tor­cy­cles.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, com­man­der of the U.S.-led coali­tion back­ing Iraq’s fight with airstrikes and mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers, re­cently de­scribed Mo­sul as the tough­est ur­ban war­fare he has wit­nessed, or even read about, dur­ing his 34 years of ser­vice. But Iraqi and U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials ex­pect the fi­nal push into the Old City to be more bru­tal still as the mil­i­tants make a last stand.

Mas­sacres of civil­ians at­tempt­ing to leave have de­terred many from try­ing. In the worst in­ci­dent, more than 100 peo­ple were gunned down near the city’s Pepsi fac­tory this month. The mil­i­tants also con­fis­cate iden­tity cards; some men are scared to leave without them be­cause se­cu­rity forces might sus­pect they are Is­lamic State fight­ers.

The Old City res­i­dent said his ex­tended fam­ily of 20 re­cently ran out of the three months of food they had stored, but they man­aged to pur­chase about 22 pounds of flour for $170. They eat a sin­gle meal ev­ery day at sun­set.

“That’s the lux­u­ri­ous life,” he said. “Many can’t even find that.”

Res­i­dents risk mor­tar fire to wait in line for muddy well wa­ter that is caus­ing di­ar­rhea and hep­ati­tis A, he said. If they can find wood to burn, they boil the wa­ter be­fore drink­ing it, he said.

About 10 to 15 civil­ians die each day in bomb­ings, he said. Mil­i­tants de­mand that the doors of homes are kept open so that they can ac­cess rooftops to fight, bring­ing ter­ror to res­i­dents in­side who fear they could be ac­ci­den­tally killed in airstrikes by the U.S.-led coali­tion or Iraqi forces. The build­ings are old and un­sta­ble, and sev­eral can be torn down in a sin­gle strike, he said.

“We pray that there is no strike near us, not just on our house, but near us, be­cause the re­sult will be the same,” he said. “There are lots of fam­i­lies trapped un­der the rub­ble.”

Col. Ryan Dil­lon, a coali­tion spokesman in Bagh­dad, said the in­tegrity and den­sity of build­ings are taken into ac­count be­fore airstrikes are con­ducted, as are Is­lamic State tac­tics of gath­er­ing peo­ple in houses used for fight­ing po­si­tions.

Those who do es­cape gather at des­ig­nated lo­ca­tions for screen­ing by se­cu­rity forces and evac­u­a­tion. Many are de­hy­drated, mal­nour­ished and in­jured when they ar­rive, ac­cord­ing to medics. All are trau­ma­tized.

“It’s death, death, death, red death,” said 22-year-old Ahmed Haitham. “We haven’t seen the sun for the past month.” Eigh­teen peo­ple were killed in an airstrike in the house next to his a day ear­lier, he said. His fam­ily still had food, but oth­ers said hunger had forced them to leave.

The pro­vin­cial coun­cil sent a re­quest to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the U.S.-led coali­tion for an air­drop of es­sen­tial food sup­plies two months ago but has not re­ceived a re­sponse, said Hus­sam al-Abar, one of its mem­bers. Dil­lon said the coali­tion has not re­ceived such a re­quest.

Es­ti­mates of the num­ber of peo­ple trapped in the Old City range widely. Abar put the num­ber at 45,000, while Lise Grande, the United Na­tions hu­man­i­tar­ian co­or­di­na­tor for Iraq, said be­tween 120,000 and 150,000 are in­side. “The ma­jor con­cern is wa­ter,” she said. “Food is short, the elec­tric­ity is off most of the time, and there are se­vere short­ages of medicine.”

Ahmed Mo­hammed, 32, fled the Maidan neighborhood of the Old City two weeks ago with his wife and two chil­dren, ages 4 and 2. Hav­ing run out of milk for the chil­dren, they had lit­tle choice, he said.

It took him two days to get from his house to the se­cu­rity forces, de­spite it be­ing a dis­tance of only a few miles. The fam­ily trav­eled from house to house to evade the mil­i­tants, who stop peo­ple in the street they sus­pect are try­ing to flee.

“We started at 2 a.m. and went to houses rec­om­mended by friends, or friends of friends,” he said. “Now I’m talk­ing to rel­a­tives in­side — they say they won’t try to leave after Zan­jili,” he added, re­fer­ring to the mass killings at the Pepsi fac­tory.

Be­fore he left the city, Is­lamic State mil­i­tants were re­in­forc­ing around the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri, with more fight­ers from the Cau­ca­sus ar­riv­ing in the area re­cently, he said.

Maj. Gen. Na­jim al-Jabouri, the head of Nin­eveh Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, said the Is­lamic State fight­ers in the city in­clude about 300 to 400 for­eign­ers and about the same num­ber of lo­cals.

Dil­lon put the to­tal num­ber at “less than 1,000.”

Fed­eral po­lice forces reached the out­skirts of the Old City months ago but stalled as they hit the dense neigh­bor­hoods and have suf­fered per­sis­tent coun­ter­at­tacks. With the of­fen­sive from the south stut­ter­ing, Iraqi troops repo­si­tioned to be­gin a new at­tack from the north in May, mov­ing in to choke off the Old City.

“They are the ham­mer, and we are the anvil — be a strong anvil,” Lt. Col. John Haw­baker, who heads the ad­vise and as­sist mis­sion for fed­eral po­lice forces, told U.S. para­troop­ers on look­out at a base less than two miles from the mosque, as forces be­gan their new of­fen­sive to sur­round the Old City.

But the anvil was shaken this past week when dozens of Is­lamic State fight­ers pen­e­trated po­lice lines in a well-planned coun­ter­at­tack, briefly tak­ing ground.

Still, the fi­nal push for Mo­sul’s Old City is ex­pected soon, Iraqi com­man­ders say. A small area around the Jumhuiya hospi­tal is the only ter­ri­tory out­side of the Old City still to be re­cap­tured.

“Tell the se­cu­rity forces to reach us quickly,” the Old City res­i­dent pleaded. “If this lasts un­til the end of the month, many peo­ple will die.”

ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS

A mem­ber of the Iraqi fed­eral po­lice pa­trols the Bab al Ja­did district in Mo­sul’s Old City on June 1.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sources: IHS Jane’s Con­flict Mon­i­tor as of June 12, staff re­ports

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