As ISIS loses men in Mosul, here come the girls

Surrounded and hemmed into a small pocket in western Mosul, ISIL is drawing on its women to stave off defeat in the bitter battle for the city.

Female fighters and suicide bombers are increasingly common on the frontlines, according to Iraqi soldiers battling the extremists in Mosul, where the so-called Islamic State has been reduced to the cityís centre on the west bank the Tigris river.

"Daesh is surrounded and have nowhere to run. They are desperate and will even use women to fight us," said Saif Saad, a sergeant with the Iraqi Special Operations Forces.

As the campaign to liberate the city from the terrorist group entered its ninth month on Saturday, Iraqi forces are about to launch their assault on the old town.

The elite ISOF are at the forefront of the assault, and its troops expect to encounter female fighters at close quarters in the warren of narrow streets and sturdy stone buildings.

"We will see more women suicide bombers when we enter the old town. They fight with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles, and blow themselves up if they run out of ammunition," said Sgt Saad.

Iraqi forces first faced female ISIL fighters a month ago in the Zinjili neighbourhood in north-west Mosul, Sgt Saad said. His unit encountered a group of five in a house in the area two weeks ago.

Some of the women were shot when they attacked a Humvee, the rest detonated suicide vests.

Until recently, women had been kept away from the front line. But many months of fighting have depleted both Iraqi forces and the insurgents. While the Iraqis are able to bolster their ranks with more recruits, ISILís manpower is shrinking fast.

Unable to make up for the shortfall, ISIL is allowing women to ignore the traditional gender roles enshrined in its hardline ideology. Many of the extremists killed in battle have left behind wives fanatically committed to the terrorist group, who take up arms to replace their men at the front, Iraqi soldiers say.

Female combatants are beginning to appear in ISILís online propaganda. The groupís latest video about Mosul shows a woman donning a headscarf and wearing combat fatigues, a rifle leaning against her shoulder as she smiles into the camera.

While some ISIL women fight alongside the men, others try and make it through the Iraqi lines with civilians escaping the battle. Fully covered in burqas, they are able to hide explosives or weapons with ease. If they go undetected, they can detonate their explosive belt or open fire on the military.

Despite the danger, Iraqi soldiers are reluctant to conduct physical searches on women.

"They come out with the families and we canít search them," said Major Hishar, an officer with Iraqís 15th Division, which encountered the problem when advancing through the Shifaa neighbourhood adjacent to the old town.

When the frontline troops establish a corridor to funnel civilians out of a combat zone, the forces in the rear are more likely to get attacked by female suicide bombers who have mixed in with the families streaming out of the area.

The Federal Police, a paramilitary outfit that often holds the ground in the liberated areas in west Mosul, has been very hard hit, the men of ISOF say.

The military has set up mustering points a short distance behind the front lines, from where lorries ferry civilians to displacement camps, and where initial screenings are often conducted. These mustering points are at risk of being hit by the female suicide bombers, soldiers say.

The suicide bombings vary from foiled getaways to targeted attacks.

"When their husband gets killed, some of the women try and escape with the families. They carry a suicide belt, and if they get caught they blow themselves up. Most want to escape, but others attack us on purpose," said Sgt Saad.

The troops receiving the families are caught between the instinct to help and the need to protect themselves against suicide attacks. Fleeing civilians have to brave ISIL snipers who shoot at anyone looking to escape the conflict zone. Many have lost relatives to air strikes and artillery fire that is laying waste to ISIL-controlled areas.

The soldiers are sympathetic to the plight of the families, but they also remain suspicious.

"When civilians come towards us and we see a women walking by herself, we keep our guns trained on her," said ISOF Sgt Maj Amad.