Iraq still faces grueling urban combat in Mosul
Mosul, Iraq — Layers of hastily erected barricades built from rubble and twisted metal trace Mosul’s eastern front line where Iraqi forces and Islamic State group fighters are facing off in the dense neighborhoods and narrow alleyways of the country’s second largest city.
As the operation to retake Mosul enters its second month on Thursday, Iraqi forces are preparing for prolonged, grueling urban combat.
They have slowed the tempo of their operations, advancing just a few hundred meters at a time. Iraqi forces have gathered troops many times the estimated 5,000 IS fighters in the city.
But hundreds of thousands of civilians still remain in the city. And the ferocity and magnitude of IS counterattacks and defenses in Mosul is unlike anything Iraqi forces have confronted in the fight against the militant group so far. As a result, overwhelming force can’t bring swift victory, and the campaign is likely to take weeks.
Iraqi forces have advanced the furthest and faced the heaviest resistance in Mosul’s east. Iraq’s special forces say they control significant pockets of four of Mosul’s easternmost neighborhoods: Zahra, Qadisiya, Tahrir and Gogjali. The territory measures less than a tenth of the city’s total area.
Inside those neighborhoods, Iraqi forces are now surrounded by thousands of civilians as they continue to push to the city center. The presence of civilians has already thwarted the use of overwhelming air power to clear territory.
Iraqi officers say they also worry that IS supporters among the civilians are helping the group.
“We control all of this area,” Iraqi special forces Maj. Ahmed Mamouri said, speaking in the Zahra district. “We’ve cleared the territory of fighters, but some of the civilians still support Daesh,” he said using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Over the past year, Iraqi forces have slowly clawed back territory from IS. Facing a militant organization that proclaimed itself a state, Iraq’s security forces battled IS with conventional military tactics: cutting supply lines, besieging cities and measuring victory in square kilometers.
In Mosul, Iraqi forces are undertaking a much more complex fight.
Mosul is not yet surrounded by Iraqi forces and has smuggling routes and supply lines with IS territory in Syria. Iraq has mobilized some 100,000 troops from the military, as well as tribal and militia fighters, to take on the estimated 5,000 IS fighters inside Mosul. Also, the U.S.-led coalition has deployed some 100 U.S. troops to Iraqi front lines to help. The coalition has also launched more than 4,000 airstrike the past month and provided Iraqi forces with surveillance and intelligence.
The individual tactics employed by IS mirror past fights: extensive tunnel systems, large, armored car bombs, snipers and small units of fighters left behind to fight to the death.
But the sheer scale of IS defenses and counterattacks in Mosul has stunned Iraq’s military.
During a single week, Iraqi special forces Lt. Col. Muhanad al-Tamimi said more than 30 car bombs attacked his troops on Mosul’s eastern edge. The U.S.-led coalition estimates that since the operation was formally announced, coalition airstrikes destroyed hundreds of meters of IS tunnel networks.
In past fights against IS in Ramadi and Fallujah, Iraqi ground forces emptied entire cities of their civilian populations, simplifying the battlefield.
In Mosul, a city more than five times the size of Ramadi, that’s not an option. Aid groups warn that the massive displacement of those still living in Mosul would overwhelm humanitarian organizations and the Iraqi government.
Iraqi commanders responded by telling people to stay in their homes and wait out the fight. But aid groups and government agencies can’t reach the thousands sheltering so close to the front line.