The Iraqi soldiers posing for photos next to a pile of captured ISIS weaponry — mortar shells, tanks, even a tunnel-boring machine — are battle-hardened. They have been fighting ISIS all over the country since 2014, when about a third of Iraq fell to the extremists.
Speaking at a little base in northern Iraq, they say the fight for ISIS’ largest stronghold, Mosul, is different.
“In Anbar, there was just us and them,” said Cpl. Qusay al-Jubouri, referring to the province west of Baghdad where the ISIS-held cities were deserted by civilians during battles earlier this year and last year. “We knew everyone inside the city was an enemy — in any house, we could attack them. But here, the problem is all the civilians stay in their houses.”
The U.N. estimates as many as a million people, maybe even more, still live in Mosul. ISIS fighters use civilians’ rooftops as sniper hideouts and sneak through narrow streets on motorcycles.
“ISIS is using civilians as human shields,” said Jubouri. Eyewitnesses inside the city and displaced people who’ve fled say the extremists have forced civilians deeper into the city, making crowded neighborhoods even more densely populated.
Military officials and their advisers from the U.S.-led coalition have repeatedly stressed that protecting civilians is a priority in this fight. Jubouri agreed, but noted that it is very difficult to use airstrikes, tank rounds or indeed any weapons against ISIS inside Mosul, for fear of hitting civilians.
The offensive has been going on for a month. The array of Iraqi security forces, paramilitaries and international allies still face, in many areas, stiff resistance from ISIS in the rural outskirts of the city.
But the army and counter-terror forces east of Mosul moved relatively quickly through villages deserted by civilians, and are now inside the city.
“We entered,” said Gen. Shaker al-Shwaily. “But our movement became slower.”
Shwaily is with the 9th division of the Iraqi army, an armored division, and said in the narrow streets of Mosul, his tanks and Humvees get stuck and become easy targets. The fight really needs more infantry, he says, but he’s not sure when it might arrive.
In the weeks before the offensive to retake Mosul began, military and civilian leaders said they expected resistance groups inside the city to rise up against the extremists. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, but Shwaily didn’t seem surprised.
“These are poor people,” he said. Ground down by years of what is essentially a siege and under total ISIS control, Shwaily couldn’t see that they would have the resources to fight back.
At a nearby camp for the displaced in Hassan Shami village, a man who fled heavy fighting in Mosul a week ago said he didn’t expect to see significant resistance to ISIS there.
“It’s hard for us to resist them,” he said. “We don’t have weapons, and also we have children with us.”
ISIS fighters know who everyone is, where their families live. They would take revenge on the family of any rebels, he said.
The man spoke anonymously because he is still afraid of ISIS. But he said although their fighters are brutal, they are no longer numerous.
“I think their numbers are small,” he said. “But they try to deceive the security forces by hiding themselves between houses and moving around on motorcycles.” They shoot from one house, then another, hoping to give the illusion of numbers.
Despite what analysts call the “compression” of fighting around the city — and the fact that anti-ISIS forces haven’t even reached the city limits in some areas — Iraqi commanders remain optimistic.
Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi of the elite counter-terror forces said he thought Iraqi forces would take control at least of the eastern side of the city, which they’ve already entered, within a month or two. “I cannot say when exactly,” he said. “But soon.”
He said his men have stopped using vehicles at all and are moving forward in small groups on foot, block by block, trying to isolate houses with ISIS fighters to kill them at close range.
The extremists are still using car bombs, booby traps and snipers. “But it is getting less,” Saadi said. About two weeks ago, his men were being hit by as many as 40 car bombs a day. On one recent day, he said, beaming, there were only five.