Civilians return to Mosul as Iraqi forces mop up residual ISIS fighters

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced victory in the nine-month-long battle for Mosul on July 9, nearly three years after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate from the 12th-century mosque. The city has a long road to recovery.
Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 21, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq — A steady stream of civilians crossed a floating bridge over the Tigris River into west Mosul Thursday as Iraqi troops searched for the remnants of defeated Islamic State forces in the city.

Heavy gunfire could be heard near the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul’s Old City, coinciding with media reports that small-scale fighting was still going on in the area.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, announced victory in the nine-month-long battle for Mosul on July 9, nearly three years after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate from the 12th-century mosque.

On the west bank of the Tigris, battered taxis waited to ferry displaced Iraqis back to damaged neighborhoods. Few took their chances in the Old City, where the militants made a last stand.

Streets there are still littered with blackened bodies and rubble from collapsed buildings. The smell of death was everywhere in a ruined landscape sweltering in temperatures reaching 117 degrees.

Sgt. Maj. Kasem Nassir Hussain, a member of an elite Iraq special operations unit, sat in the shade near the ruins of the al-Nuri Mosque.

The 850-year-old building and its famous leaning minaret, known as al-Hadba, or “the hunchback,” were blown up by militants as Iraqi forces closed in on them last month. Iraqi troops have been scrawling anti-ISIS graffiti on the ruins and posing for photos at the minaret’s base.

The final battle for the neighborhood was complicated by the narrow streets surrounding the mosque, Hussain said.

“It was very violent. We had to walk in on foot, and that made us easy targets for snipers,” he said, comparing the Old City to Fallujah, where U.S. forces faced one of their toughest fights of the Iraq War.

There are reports that 1,200 militants have been killed in the Old City, he said.

The Iraqi troops haven’t seen American soldiers on the front line, but advisers armed with mortars have been in the field not far from the fighting, he said.

Gunfire echoed around the neighborhood as Hussain spoke. There have been reports of ISIS suicide bombers emerging from the Old City to target Iraqi forces, but he said the nearby shooting was likely celebratory gunfire.

The Old City is gone for good, he said, as he surveyed the rubble-strewn landscape.

“This can’t be fixed,” Hussain said. “Maybe they can find foreign companies to make some modern apartments.”

The Iraqi troops have heard reports about their comrades killing prisoners, Hussain said. Four Iraqi officers defended capturing and killing ISIS suspects in contravention of international law because militant rule was so cruel, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

Hussain said that ISIS women who surrendered to his men had their injuries treated and were sent to hospitals.

“When the kids come out (of damaged buildings) they are very dirty,” Hussain said. We wash them here.”

Ahmed Fadhel, a civilian medic working with Iraqi special forces, showed a cellphone video of soldiers hosing dust off women and children who, he said, had emerged from damaged buildings.

Fadhel, a stethoscope around his neck and a pair of scissors hanging from his belt, said he fled Mosul for Baghdad after 18 months of living under ISIS.

“I came back here to help people,” he said.

Fadhel worked alongside American and European volunteer medics, he said, driving victims of car bombs, mortars and gunshot wounds to hospitals.

“I’m very happy that I have helped,” he said. “So many people here are not ISIS — families and children and females,” he said.

U.S. personnel are advising Iraqi forces at Hamam al-Alil, an Iraqi federal police headquarters south of the city. The federal police, along with regular Iraqi Army and the special forces, fought the battle in the city’s west.

Most of the U.S. advisers there are from the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd “Falcon” Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, out of Fort Bragg, N.C., 1st Squadron commander Lt. Col. John Hawbaker said last week.

Two thousand Falcon Brigade soldiers are in Iraq providing force protection, strike support and intelligence sharing along with the “advise and assist” mission, Hawbaker said.

Iraqi leaders are investigating allegations that troops have killed prisoners, he said, adding that his unit hasn’t trained the Iraqi federal police in detainee operations.

“The federal police recently announced that their sector, which includes the south part of the Old City, had been cleared of enemy fighters,” Hawbaker said.

Police are searching areas they have cleared to make sure they’re safe and taking steps to prevent an insurgency from developing. “There are checkpoints on all the roads (in west Mosul). They’re implementing a hold now,” he said.

Roads in the west were cleared of roadside bombs by advancing Iraqi forces, he added. “They’re rolling back through to make sure they didn’t miss any booby traps,” he said.

Hawbaker said displaced civilians have been going back to their homes and reopening markets, but that wasn’t obvious in the areas near the Old City, where there were only a few people on the streets. Hawbaker, who convoyed through parts of west Mosul this month, said neighborhoods to the north are much busier, with farmers’ markets and mechanic shops open for business.

Twitter: @SethRobson1

A family searches for what's left of their home near the ruins of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul's Old City on Thursday, July 20, 2017.