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Two armored trucks seized from Islamic State fighters near Mosul are pictured here on display outside an Iraqi army camp in Karamlis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

Two armored trucks seized from Islamic State fighters near Mosul are pictured here on display outside an Iraqi army camp in Karamlis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Two armored trucks seized from Islamic State fighters near Mosul are pictured here on display outside an Iraqi army camp in Karamlis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

Two armored trucks seized from Islamic State fighters near Mosul are pictured here on display outside an Iraqi army camp in Karamlis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Mortar shells and mortar tubes Iraqi forces have seized from Islamic State fighters in villages outside Mosul are lined up outside a camp for the army's 9th armored division in Karamlis, pictured here on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

Mortar shells and mortar tubes Iraqi forces have seized from Islamic State fighters in villages outside Mosul are lined up outside a camp for the army's 9th armored division in Karamlis, pictured here on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Iraqi soldiers climb on a Soviet-made T-55 tank, which was seized from Islamic State fighters in the village of Ali Rash outside Mosul and was on display with other seized hardware and munitions near the Iraqi army's 9th armored division's camp in Karamlis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

Iraqi soldiers climb on a Soviet-made T-55 tank, which was seized from Islamic State fighters in the village of Ali Rash outside Mosul and was on display with other seized hardware and munitions near the Iraqi army's 9th armored division's camp in Karamlis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

A Soviet-made T-55 tank belches diesel exhaust as an Iraqi soldier drives it around an army camp in Karamilis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The tank was seized from Islamic State fighters in the village of Ali Rash outside Mosul.

A Soviet-made T-55 tank belches diesel exhaust as an Iraqi soldier drives it around an army camp in Karamilis on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The tank was seized from Islamic State fighters in the village of Ali Rash outside Mosul. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Iraqi army Col. Walid Dakhal speaks to reporters in the village of Scheherazade outside Mosul on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Dakhal's troops are pushing forward in Mosul as part of an effort to clear the area of Islamic State fighters who have controlled Iraq's second largest city since 2014.

Iraqi army Col. Walid Dakhal speaks to reporters in the village of Scheherazade outside Mosul on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Dakhal's troops are pushing forward in Mosul as part of an effort to clear the area of Islamic State fighters who have controlled Iraq's second largest city since 2014. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Children in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul greet passing Iraqi army Humvees with cheers and victory signs on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Though an indicator that the area has been cleared of Islamic State fighters, the outbursts are no guarantee that militants aren't concealing themselves among the civilian population.

Children in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul greet passing Iraqi army Humvees with cheers and victory signs on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Though an indicator that the area has been cleared of Islamic State fighters, the outbursts are no guarantee that militants aren't concealing themselves among the civilian population. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Children in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul greet passing Iraqi army Humvees with cheers and victory signs on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Though an indicator that the area has been cleared of Islamic State fighters, the outbursts are no guarantee that militants aren't concealing themselves among the civilian population.

Children in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul greet passing Iraqi army Humvees with cheers and victory signs on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Though an indicator that the area has been cleared of Islamic State fighters, the outbursts are no guarantee that militants aren't concealing themselves among the civilian population. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Two Iraqi girls in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul smile after receiving bottles of water from Iraqis soldiers on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The neighborhood was recently cleared of most of the Islamic State fighters who had been occupying it since 2014.

Two Iraqi girls in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul smile after receiving bottles of water from Iraqis soldiers on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The neighborhood was recently cleared of most of the Islamic State fighters who had been occupying it since 2014. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

An Iraqi army Humvee driver pats the top of a young girl's head as children gather at the door of his vehicle in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The residents of the area said food and water had been scarce during the two years Islamic State fighters occupied it before it was liberated as pat of a campaign to drive the militants out of their last major urban stronghold in Iraq's second-largest city.

An Iraqi army Humvee driver pats the top of a young girl's head as children gather at the door of his vehicle in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. The residents of the area said food and water had been scarce during the two years Islamic State fighters occupied it before it was liberated as pat of a campaign to drive the militants out of their last major urban stronghold in Iraq's second-largest city. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

Children pose for a photo with an Iraqi soldier in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Soldiers with the Iraqi army's 9th Armored Division liberated the city from Islamic State group control as part of a campaign to retake Mosul from the militants.

Children pose for a photo with an Iraqi soldier in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Soldiers with the Iraqi army's 9th Armored Division liberated the city from Islamic State group control as part of a campaign to retake Mosul from the militants. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

A young Iraqi girl in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul flashes a victory sign on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

A young Iraqi girl in the Intisar neighborhood of Mosul flashes a victory sign on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes)

MOSUL, Iraq — One of the Islamic State group’s key tactics is concealment, a classic guerrilla tactic that makes it hard for Iraqi forces to know for certain they have completely cleared an area of the militants.

Staff Col. Walid Dakhel of the 9th Armored Division said there are a few signs he looks for: the fighting has stopped, civilians appear on the streets cheering and waving, men cut beards they’d been forced to grow, and women remove their compulsory burqas.

In the month since the U.S.-backed campaign began to oust the Islamic State from Mosul, the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, the division has cleared the villages of Balawat, Qaraqosh, Karamlis, Alirashsh, Scheherazade and the neighborhoods of Judayda al Mufti and Intisar as it approaches Mosul’s downtown center on one of several axes along which the Iraqi-led coalition is converging.

But repeated visits to the villages through which government forces have moved in their push into the city make it clear that truly securing a town or neighborhood is a challenge.

In early November, on an axis to the north of the 9th Division, where Iraqi special operations forces were driving toward the Tigris River, the suburb of Gogjali was deemed safe for reporters to visit one day but was too dangerous the next. Militants had reportedly emerged from concealed tunnels late at night and clashed with Iraqi forces.

Nearly a week later, Gogjali residents were still complaining of weak security. Two weeks later, on Sunday, civilians and at least one Iraqi soldier at the West Irbil Emergency Hospital were being treated for wounds received in mortar attacks in the neighborhood.

Besides mortar attacks, the Iraqi forces have encountered militants — some as young as 14 — who use civilians as human shields and hide booby traps in civilian cars and houses, Dakhel said. They’ve encountered nearly 50 car bombs, eight in the village of Balawat alone.

“Because we are in civilian neighborhoods, we don’t use heavy weapons,” Dakhel said. The troops proceed slowly and methodically.

In Karamlis, as in other villages, the militants had concealed their movements by digging a network of tunnels beneath the streets and knocking out walls between adjoining houses.

Another tactic they’ve used is positioning snipers in abandoned buildings.

On Saturday, a Humvee traveling in a convoy taking reporters from Alirashsh across a desolate stretch of land to Dakhel’s camp in Scheherazade suffered a flat tire, which some soldiers said was shot out by a sharpshooter, likely in a distant building.

The driver stopped a few hundred meters away in the bed of a dry ravine, and soldiers struggled to swap out the shredded tire as journalists milled in the shade of the ravine bank. Bursts of not-so-distant gunfire rang out, sending some reporters running for cover.

An Iraqi soldier returned fire from a turret-mounted .50-caliber machine gun, which seemed to ward off any attackers long enough to mount the spare tire and move on without further incident.

The militants, who are outnumbered by the attackers and spread thin, have been seeking to slow the Iraqi army’s advance. They are fighting mostly individually, coordinating their actions over pagers and landline phones or via coded transmissions on Motorola radios, said the 9th Division’s intelligence chief, Col. Jabbar Abed. He estimated there are still more than 2,000 fighters in Mosul — some estimates are triple that — though he said many of the top commanders and foreigners had moved out.

Abed showed off a 2015 Jeep Cherokee among a cache of seized weapons at the division’s Karamlis camp — dozens of improvised explosive devices and munitions as well as military hardware, including long rows of mortar rounds and an exhaust-spewing Soviet-made T-55 tank. The SUV had been fitted with steel plate armor and thick glass, with slots in the doors for rifles and a turret for a heavy machine gun, he said. A militant commander used the armored vehicle to travel between fighting positions and check on his men.

The Jeep had been taken from Intisar, a Mosul neighborhood the division had most recently retaken after facing heavy resistance. On a visit there Saturday, Humvees passed children flashing victory signs. White flags were mounted above the gates of some homes.

On one block, children flocked around a stopped Humvee and smiled when soldiers gave them bottled water or boxes of food with a few folded pieces of flat, round bread on top.

Omar, 23, who would give only his first name, said food and water were scarce under Islamic State control. There were no jobs and little money.

“It was very bad,” he said. “They were killing us for no reason. They were very brutal.”

Nearby, a group of children posed for photos with a soldier holding an assault rifle.

Still, these happy signs of liberation do not mean everything is secure. Some militants and their supporters remain hidden among the population and continue to mount sporadic attacks.

“We still get mortared here every now and then,” Dakhel said as he sat smoking a cigarette in the living room of one of the houses in the village of Scheherazade that serves as a temporary base. The room’s windows had been blown out, and sandbags had been piled up to cover them. “They’re not really accurate. They usually hit civilians.”

The next day, local media reported, soldiers from his division in Intisar were again clashing with Islamic State fighters as they cleared houses from stragglers and booby traps.

garland.chad@stripes.com Twitter: @chadgarland

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Chad is a Marine Corps veteran who covers the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. An Illinois native who’s reported for news outlets in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Oregon and California, he’s an alumnus of the Defense Language Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University.
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