A last stand

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LOVE­DAY MOR­RIS AND MUSTAFA SALIM love­day.mor­ris@wash­post.com

Iraqi forces faced snipers, mor­tar fire and booby traps as they be­gan an as­sault against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Mo­sul.

mo­sul, iraq — Iraqi forces faced snipers, mor­tar fire and booby traps as they be­gan an as­sault on Mo­sul’s Old City on Sun­day, break­ing into a maze of nar­row streets and al­ley­ways where hun­dreds of hard­ened Is­lamic State mil­i­tants are ex­pected to make a bloody last stand.

Clouds of smoke rose above the his­toric city cen­ter in the early morn­ing as a bar­rage of ar­tillery and airstrikes from U.S.-led coali­tion jets struck mil­i­tant tar­gets.

From nearby build­ings bull­doz­ers could be seen at­tempt­ing to break through the bar­ri­cades that marked Is­lamic State de­fense lines, com­ing un­der heavy fire but even­tu­ally open­ing the way for coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces that led the as­sault.

In­tense gun bat­tles broke out af­ter they en­tered. With the wind­ing streets mak­ing car bombs more dif­fi­cult to mo­bi­lize, the mil­i­tants com­pen­sated with an­ti­tank weapons and mor­tar fire, which crashed down into streets be­hind the front lines. Snipers also way­laid the ad­vance.

“They are be­sieged, they will fight to the death,” said Mas­ter Sgt. Latif Om­ran, as his unit, armed with M-4 as­sault ri­fles and rocket-pro­pelled grenades, waited just back from the front line for Humvees to ferry them for­ward.

Over the past eight months, the mil­i­tants have been grad­u­ally cor­ralled into the Old City — an area of lit­tle more than a square mile on the west­ern banks of the Ti­gris River.

The loss of their last foothold in Mo­sul, once the largest city the mil­i­tants con­trolled, will strike a huge sym­bolic blow to the Is­lamic State. It was in the Old City’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, de­clared the for­ma­tion of a caliphate three years ago.

Since then the group has lost the ma­jor­ity of its ter­ri­tory in Iraq, while an of­fen­sive for Raqqa, the Is­lamic State’s Syr­ian cap­i­tal, be­gan last month.

How­ever, de­spite the losses few ex­pect an easy fight for the last few inches of Mo­sul, where the United Na­tions es­ti­mates that as many as 150,000 civil­ians re­main trapped.

The tiny lanes of the Old City make the ter­rain par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for Iraqi forces, as they can’t en­ter many ar­eas with their ar­mored ve­hi­cles. Much of the fight­ing will have to be done on foot.

“This is their for­ward de­fense line so there’s fierce re­sis­tance,” said Lt. Gen. Ab­del­wa­hab al-Saedi, deputy head of the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces, at a base in west­ern Mo­sul. “They are us­ing the mor­tar shells heav­ily.”

As the as­sault be­gan, so did the in­evitable ca­su­al­ties. Min­utes af­ter Om­ran and his unit left for the front came a crackle over the ra­dio. “Our gun­ner is in­jured — we need another,” came the voice of one of­fi­cer.

While the coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces lead the as­sault into the cen­ter of the Old City, mov­ing east to­ward the river, army and po­lice forces are sup­port­ing their flanks.

On the other side of the front lines, ter­ri­fied fam­i­lies are trapped in their houses. Shel­ter­ing in crowded base­ments, many have not seen sun­light for weeks. Hu­man­i­tar­ian agency work­ers have urged Iraqi and coali­tion forces to use cau­tion and re­strain the use of heavy weaponry.

“The build­ings of the old town are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to col­lapse even if they aren’t di­rectly tar­geted, which could lead to even more civil­ian deaths than the hun­dreds killed so far in airstrikes across the rest of the city,” said Nora Love, the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee’s act­ing coun­try direc­tor.

Iraqi com­man­ders and the U.S.-led coali­tion say they are tak­ing into ac­count the in­tegrity of the build­ings and the fact that the mil­i­tants are us­ing civil­ians as shields as they carry out strikes. Still, civil­ians who have man­aged to dodge Is­lamic State snipers to flee, and those still trapped in­side, say civil­ians are dy­ing ev­ery day in the bom­bard­ment.

As the as­sault be­gan in the morn­ing, three TOS-1 mis­siles sailed into the city. The ther­mo­baric rock­ets cause a blast of pres­sure and can kill over an area of 3,000 square feet in open ter­rain. They were used on school build­ings known to be de­void of civil­ians, said Col. Arkan Fad­hil, who co­or­di­nates airstrikes with the coali­tion. The pres­sure blast can be con­tained by sur­round­ing build­ings in ur­ban ar­eas, he said.

Coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces had taken two of the school build­ings by the end of the day, giv­ing them a “foothold” in the Old City, he said.

About 75 Is­lamic State mil­i­tants manned the for­ward de­fense line — in groups of two or three — he said. Saedi said coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces had taken about 150 yards by the early af­ter­noon. Fed­eral po­lice forces also claimed to have gained around 150 yards.

In­stead of be­ing told to stay in their homes as they have been else­where, civil­ians will be asked to evac­u­ate both for their own pro­tec­tion and to make the neigh­bor­hood eas­ier to clear, ac­cord­ing to com­man­ders.

Over the past five days, loud­speak­ers have blared into the Old City, promis­ing “sal­va­tion” and urg­ing Is­lamic State forces — whose num­bers are dif­fi­cult to es­ti­mate — to sur­ren­der.

But as many as 400 of those in­side are hard­ened for­eign fight­ers, who are likely to fight to the death, said Lt. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, also a coun­tert­er­ror­ism com­man­der. Some Iraqis fight­ing for the Is­lamic State have man­aged to flee with dis­placed fam­i­lies, he said.

While there is not much ground to cover, some com­man­ders pre­dict the fi­nal push for Mo­sul could last at least a month.

The elite coun­tert­er­ror­ism units — which have led the ma­jor­ity of Iraq’s fight against the mil­i­tants over the past three years — have suf­fered a 40 per­cent ca­su­alty rate since the be­gin­ning of the op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to U.S. fig­ures, rais­ing con­cerns about how long they can sus­tain a pro­longed bat­tle. Saedi said the ca­su­alty rate re­mained in the “ac­cept­able range.”

ERIK DE CAS­TRO/REUTERS

Smoke bil­lows from Is­lamic State mil­i­tants’ po­si­tions in west­ern Mo­sul, Iraq, af­ter an ar­tillery at­tack by Iraqi forces on Sun­day.

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