Since pushing into Mosul a week ago, Iraqi commanders say their forces have been shaken by some of the most complex fighting they have ever encountered in battles against ISIL.
It is a bitter fight: street to street, house to house, with the presence of civilians slowing the advancing forces. Car bombs the militants’ main weapon — scream out of garages and straight into advancing military convoys.
“If there were no civilians, we’d just burn it all,” said Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridhi, a counterterrorism commander. He was forced to temporarily pause operations in his sector Monday because too many families were clogging the street. “I couldn’t bomb with artillery or tanks, or heavy weapons. I said, ‘We can’t do anything.’ ”
Mosul is the most populous city held by the militants, with an estimated 1 million people still living there. Iraqi forces have been closing in from the north and south but have broken into the city only on the eastern front, beginning a slow grind through densely populated neighborhoods.
It’s a long, hard slog to the Tigris River that carves through the center of Mosul — and then a whole new battle awaits on the other side. Commanders expressed confidence that they eventually will prevail, but they are less optimistic that they will meet Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s pledge to have the city under control by the end of the year.
Militants wait to move between fighting positions until people fill the streets, using their presence as protection from airstrikes.
“They always keep them with them,” Aridhi said. Other officers said the militants occasionally let a flood of people flee as a method of forcing a pause in the fight.