Middle East

Fight for a Mosul district shows Iraqis' slow, painful slog

  • In this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 photo, a aember of the Iraqi Special Forces shoots his machine gun against an Islamic State militant drone n the al-Barid district in Mosul, Iraq. In a part of Mosul that had been reclaimed from the Islamic State group (IS) days ago, Iraqi special forces were attacked on Sunday by drones operated by IS fighters inside the city.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

    In this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 photo, a aember of the Iraqi Special Forces shoots his machine gun against an Islamic State militant drone n the al-Barid district in Mosul, Iraq. In a part of Mosul that had been reclaimed from the Islamic State group (IS) days ago, Iraqi special forces were attacked on Sunday by drones operated by IS fighters inside the city.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 photo, Iraqi children look at the body of a half-buried Islamic State militant while talking to an Iraqi soldier in the al-Barid district in Mosul, Iraq. In a part of Mosul that had been reclaimed from the Islamic State group (IS) days ago, Iraqi special forces were attacked on Sunday by drones operated by IS fighters inside the city.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

    In this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 photo, Iraqi children look at the body of a half-buried Islamic State militant while talking to an Iraqi soldier in the al-Barid district in Mosul, Iraq. In a part of Mosul that had been reclaimed from the Islamic State group (IS) days ago, Iraqi special forces were attacked on Sunday by drones operated by IS fighters inside the city.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)  (The Associated Press)

  • This Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 photo shows a drawing of Mickey Mouse with its face painted over by Islamic States militants on the wall of a kindergarten n the al-Barid district in Mosul, Iraq. In a part of Mosul that had been reclaimed from the Islamic State group (IS) days ago, Iraqi special forces were attacked on Sunday by drones operated by IS fighters inside the city.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

    This Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 photo shows a drawing of Mickey Mouse with its face painted over by Islamic States militants on the wall of a kindergarten n the al-Barid district in Mosul, Iraq. In a part of Mosul that had been reclaimed from the Islamic State group (IS) days ago, Iraqi special forces were attacked on Sunday by drones operated by IS fighters inside the city.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)  (The Associated Press)

The Iraqi troops holding the front in eastern Mosul are perched inside bedrooms and kitchens of homes, on rooftops and in hallways. They haven't pushed forward in days. The water bottles and Styrofoam food containers they've used up pile around them, spilling into the houses' gardens.

Advancing into Mosul has become a painful slog for Iraqi forces. Islamic State group militants have fortified each neighborhood, unlike past battles where they concentrated their defenses in one part of the city. As a result, every advance inflicts relatively high casualties.

Weeks of urban combat have already left some of Iraq's most capable soldiers battered, and only about a quarter of the city has come under their control.

It took up to 10 days for Iraqi troops to move a few hundred meters (yards) and retake the neighborhood of al-Barid, a district of grand, upscale homes where fruit trees grow in the gardens.

There were only a few IS fighters in the neighborhood, but they were able to hold back the much larger Iraqi force because they were faster and more nimble than the slow-moving convoys of hundreds of troops, said Hatem al-Kurdi, one of the residents who remained in the district throughout the fight.

The militants "cut holes in the walls between the homes so they could always be moving from one position to another," al-Kurdi said.

For every few hundred meters of their territory, the IS militants allocate as few as four to five fighters, along with a handful of car bombs, to fight to the death, said Iraqi special forces Maj. Firas Mehdi. It is the same formula of counterattacks and defenses he has seen in every neighborhood he enters, he said.

If Iraq's military continues at the current pace, they may retake Mosul in the coming months, but at significant costs. Current rates of attrition risk further weakening the military, a legacy that could haunt Iraq's security forces for years.

A medic who operates in eastern Mosul said he sees an average of 18 military casualties a day, and his figures would not cover the other main front southeast of Mosul. A hospital official in the nearby city of Irbil corroborated the figure. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to disclose military casualty figures to the press.

In al-Barid, the front line now runs in part along a creek that snakes through eastern Mosul. Medhi's troops have hunkered down in defensive positions in the houses, much like those of IS just across the creek — but without the benefit of more than a year of preparation.

His special forces troops climbed through a garden and into a broken window to reach their sniper post on a rooftop overlooking IS fighters. At another position, in a house where two families are sheltering, men filed past dinner cooking on a stove.

The only rounds of fire that broke the silence on a Sunday afternoon visit were unleashed after the men heard the buzz of an IS drone overhead. Over the past few weeks commercial drones carrying small explosives have begun flying over Iraqi positions in Mosul, Mehdi said. The bombs they drop have only caused a few injuries.

"They haven't killed anyone, but they've flattened the tires of our Humvees," he said.

After shooting down one drone Sunday, a solider yelled out that he could see another.

"That's just an F-16," Mehdi called back, laughing.

On one street corner in al-Barid, the legs of an IS fighter stuck out of an open sewer pipe. His body had been left there for days after the battle. Small children watched as Iraqi soldiers posed for photos next to the corpse.

"It's better this way," Iraqi special forces solder Omar Zeidan said of the the decision not to bury the dead. "This is a lesson for them, it will teach them not to support Daesh."

Iraqi commanders say they've seen months of preparation by IS throughout Mosul's neighborhoods as troops advance from the city's fringes to denser neighborhoods like al-Barid.

"This kind of a fight takes time," said Iraqi special forces Brig. Gen. Yehya al-Azawi. "After each step we need to repair our equipment and reorganize our forces." Supply lines are lengthening and it takes longer to evacuate casualties.

Abbas Yasin, who lived in a tall building in the nearby district of Bab Shams, had a bird's eye view of IS preparations in past months.

He said in late 2015, IS fighters moved onto his roof as a sniper's post as they did in other tall buildings around the city. They forced families to move into buildings along main roads to serve as buffers against advancing forces.

Yasin had planned to stick it out at his home with his family through the Mosul fight. But as it dragged on, food began to run out, water was shut off and he and his family had to flee. One day when the IS fighters on the roof changed positions, he waited until nightfall and bolted across the street to a government-held area.

IS "wanted the army to come deep into the city, so the battle would be waged in the streets, not the villages," the 54-year-old said. "They knew that Mosul was always going to be their last battle."