MOSUL, IRAQ // Standing in a covered driveway with a radio glued to his ear, Lieutenant Colonel Munir Saleh flings a water bottle across a battered sedan parked in front of the house.
The officer commands a battalion of Iraq’s 16th Division that has been stuck at the edge of Shifaa neighbourhood in north-west Mosul all morning, pinned down by enemy sniper fire coming from a row of houses, which his unit is tasked with taking. The colonel has called in air support, but the wait is both frustrating and deadly. “We have lost a lot of good men,” he says, excusing his outburst.
Moments later, the body of a soldier is carried past on a stretcher, the latest casualty in the grinding battle against ISIL for Mosul.
After months of slow progress, Iraqi forces have quickened their advance by changing the direction of their attack and sweeping through the outer suburbs of south-west Mosul. But with their best units depleted in a campaign that began last October, the Iraqis have come to increasingly rely on air support to make ground. As a result, the destruction is much heavier in west Mosul than on the eastern bank of the Tigris, which was secured in January.
First the sound of jet engines, then the whistle of bombs and then two crashing explosions 200 metres away signal the arrival of air support. The house shudders from the shock waves, and the sniper fire dies down. But the soldiers inside remain despondent, and the attack on hold.
The enemy position is ISIL’s last bulwark before a wide thoroughfare that divides Shifaa from Mosul’s old town, the last area fully under the control of the terrorists. As it advances on the old town from the north, the army is also battling to dislodge the insurgents from a stretch along the Tigris river that connects the old town to the Jumhuri Hospital, where ISIL is still holding out.
Behind Lt Col Saleh’s men is a school building, taken by his men the previous day after air strikes.cut the structure in two. Further behind, the desolate streets of Shifaa are testament to the toll the battle is taking on the city and its inhabitants.
Under the blazing sun, families trickle through the neighbourhood, escaping a front line that had rolled over them that day. ISIL fighters shoot men, women and children trying to reach the safety of Iraqi lines, and many civilians wait until the army has taken control of their block before they flee.
“Daesh told us that if we tried to escape they will kill us,” says an elderly man with a grey beard and a worn out prayer cap as he takes a break with his family — women in black burkas herding a gaggle of children — next to a house requisitioned by the army. The soldiers give them all water before they continue their journey through a wasteland they struggle to recognise as their neighbourhood.
Staggering over rubble-strewn unpaved roads, escaping civilians pass collapsed houses and facades punctured by tank shells or riddled with machine gun holes. They swerve to avoid massive bomb craters intended to stop ISIL suicide car bombs.
None of the cars parked outside has survived the fighting. Their burnt out carcasses lie overturned on the side of the road, or stacked high into barricades.
The stiffer the resistance from ISIL, the more ordinance is dropped, destroying homes and killing the civilians trapped inside.
Much of the bombing is done by the US-led coalition at the behest of Iraqi forces on the ground. But the Iraqi air force is also flying missions above Mosul. When Lt Col Saleh hears Iraqi planes circling above, he curses loudly.
The airmen are not known for their accuracy with the troops on the ground.
About a mile from the front line, families are packed into army lorries waiting underneath a flyover and driven to overflowing refugee camps. A field clinic has been set up in a garage near the mustering point, and ambulances bring in a steady flow of wounded soldiers and civilians. Some families come by foot, carrying children in need of medical attention.
On a clinic bed, six-year-old Balduas Mohanned whimpers as medics bandage a swollen foot and a bruised hand. Deep cuts have disfigured her young face. Her older sister, 10-year-old Noor, arrives with another group and immediately runs up to bed. She wraps her arms around her little sister, soothing her. The two sisters lost their mother the previous day, when an air raid hit their house. A month earlier, their father was murdered by ISIL.
“They killed our father in front of our eyes a month ago because he tried to escape,” says Noor.
The girls were rescued from the rubble by the family of their father’s cousin.
While her sister lies listlessly, her young mind in shock, Noor remains collected. Her voice does not quiver, and her eyes remain steady as she speaks. At ten, she has already assumed the role of protector, and she stands guard at her sister’s bedside until a relative carries the girl to an ambulance that will drive them to a camp where an uncertain future awaits them.