On Mosulís Front Line: A Grueling Battle on Civilian Streets

The Islamic Stateís grip on Mosul has shrunk to a tighter circle of neighborhoods in the western part of the city. But many civilians are still trapped in those areas, and the militants are giving no ground easily.

As we traveled with Iraqi forces through the Rifai neighborhood last month, evidence of a brutal street fight was all around. The destruction was immense, and it seemed not a single house was free of bullet holes ó or worse.

While clashes still raged in the last remaining pockets of Islamic State control in Rifai, displaced people began to trickle out at dusk. The number of people managing to flee appeared much lower than in earlier parts of the battle for the west.

Other than the occasional group of hushed and worn-out people who would suddenly file out from the front line, the streets were almost devoid of a human presence. Another exception was the Iraqi forces stationed there. But yet there are many civilians in the area, most sticking to their houses out of fear of crossfire, or of being seized by Islamic State fighters.

On one street corner, opposite an Iraqi special forces base near the front line, five dead Islamic State fighters lay rotting in the summer heat ó a rare concentration of militants, who have increasingly fought in smaller teams of two or three men. Some Iraqi soldiers said the fighters had probably been caught by cannon fire from a helicopter or plane.

The bodies were bloated and covered in the flies that seem to flourish in the debris-strewn streets of Mosul.

Special forces soldiers took up defensive positions on the edge of Rifai after it was recaptured, and they waited for their next orders.

Then came the Islamic Stateís counterattack. Under the cover of a sudden sandstorm, the jihadists fought the troops for hours before being driven off. The militants seldom seem to pass up the chance to use storms or other heavy weather, when coalition aircraft canít target them, to press the fight.

On the front line the next morning, soldiers told how the intense gunfire during the storm battle had set their sandbag walls on fire. They appeared amazed that the Islamic State remained well equipped and capable, and described how the militants were disciplined about using vehicles and medics to retrieve their wounded.

On May 29, a Monday morning, four battalions of Iraqi special forces soldiers moved into what seemed to be a very small part of the western district of Al Saha to try to clear it of any remaining Islamic State fighters.

Setting out early, the men split into teams and moved into the area in stages. The second team had time to rest and eat breakfast before being called to join the operation.

The work for Iraqi troops has already been grueling as they have tried to clear neighborhoods north of the Old City, often within gunshot of militants holed up there.

Al Saha is one of the close-in areas, and the Iraqi special forces there took care to use the rat holes that the militants had cut through the walls of homes in order to move more securely.

At one junction on the edge of Rifai, an Islamic State sniper had taken up position and was shooting at vehicles as they crossed the road. He fired at a large group of fleeing civilians, narrowly missing. His shot flew over their heads and hit an upturned car behind them. The gunfire split the crowd, with half running back to where they had come from.

There was no other way for them to get to safety, so they waited for a military vehicle to cross the road and used the dust it kicked up as cover to make a run for it. Women carrying children, family members carrying the infirm ó all moved as quickly as they could to reach safety. Somehow, they made it out unhurt.

Little has been left unscathed in these neighborhoods, where a tremendous amount of firepower from the sky and on the ground has been brought to bear.

Coalition airstrikes are still being called in frequently in the middle of densely populated neighborhoods, and the civilian toll has been immense. But the Iraqi forces have seemed reluctant to advance at all without the air support. Here, they treated a girl who was wounded when her house was hit in an airstrike.

When asked why the men didnít just engage the Islamic State fighters more directly themselves rather than risk more civilian lives by using airstrikes, one young soldier said they wanted to finish the fight with no casualties on their side.

Maybe this way of thinking points to the high rate of attrition the Iraqi forces have had over the last few years of fighting the militants, including a huge toll on the elite counterterrorism forces over the past few months of urban fighting in Mosul. Or maybe itís an indication of a fight so bitter that utter destruction is acceptable as long as the enemy is beaten.

Ahead lies Mosulís Old City, and perhaps the worst fight yet. As the battle has drawn closer to that areaís tight and jagged streets, the number of fleeing civilians has dropped sharply.

Some of the soldiers here, as well as one resident who had managed to flee, spoke of the Islamic State fightersí trying to round up anyone still living in the area and forcing them to retreat with them toward the Old City.

Itís a chilling thought, horrifyingly consistent with how the Islamic State has fought this battle for months. The militantsí last stand may well take place behind a wall of civilians.