The U.S. and Iraq are changing tactics in the fierce battle against ISIS for the Iraqi city of Mosul, NPR News has learned.
The Iraqi commander coordinating the battle tells NPR the Iraqi military will slow an offensive pushing into the crowded old district of the city to try to minimize civilian casualties. The new tactics will mean fewer U.S. and Iraqi air strikes.
“We agreed among the commanders to not depend on the air strikes because that means we will maybe lose a lot of people,” says Maj. Gen. Najm Abdullah al-Jabouri, head of the Ninevah Operations Command.
More than 100 Iraqi civilians were killed in U.S. air strikes on March 17 in the Mosul Jadidah neighborhood. The Pentagon is investigating whether the air strikes also set off ISIS-laid explosives that contributed to houses collapsing. Jabouri says the military had not realized there were dozens of people sheltering in many of the houses.
“Because of the shortage of air strikes now we need to make some maneuvers to change our plans,” says Jabouri.
The new plan will also involve repositioning troops to reinforce areas surrounding West Mosul rather than pushing south into the old city. Iraqi forces have entirely surrounded the city leaving ISIS with no escape route. But that plan has also trapped an estimated 400,000 civilians being used by ISIS as human shields. Residents of Mosul say ISIS fighters routinely shoot at anyone trying to leave.
While U.S. and coalition air strikes paved the way for Iraqi forces to retake less densely populated East Mosul, the battle across the river in streets too narrow for armored vehicles requires house-to-house fighting.
“We moved very quickly on the east side of the city but our mission now is very difficult,” says Jabouri. “We have now liberated more than 50 percent of the city and we know very well the people still in the city are suffering a lot because of the shortage of food, water, electricity, everything.”
Along with several thousand civilians killed or injured in the battle for Mosul, the Iraqi military has also suffered heavy losses. US and Iraqi commanders say almost 800 Iraqi forces have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded. As they move further into West Mosul they have encountered more effective ISIS defensive lines.
Jabouri estimates between 700 and 800 ISIS fighters remain in Mosul.
“That’s not very much but the problem is the number of civilians still in the city,” he says. “What use is it to liberate Mosul if you have so many losses.”