The U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces are facing fierce resistance in the renewed push against western Mosul, the second half of a taxing months-long battle against the Islamic State.
The fight for eastern Mosul took the Iraqi Security Forces nearly 3 months to retake, and cost thousands of lives. Western Mosul has nearly 750,000 civilians who remain inside the city, and ISIS is deeply embedded within their neighborhoods.
The Iraqi government is quick to paint victories out of the retaking of Mosul airport or of a strategic bridge, but other accounts offer a grim view of the battle to come. Western Mosul’s streets are narrower than its eastern counterpart, making Iraqi Army Humvees much less maneuverable.
Nabih Bulos, a reporter for the LA times embedded with the Iraqi Security Forces, Tuesday recounted two failed assaults on ISIS’s main defensive line. “I can’t go forward. I’m being fired upon from 180 degrees,” he heard one soldier tell his commander over the radio. The assault would fail, because multiple Iraqi troops devoid of ammo were pinned down by ISIS snipers, and under repeated fire during attempts to recover them.
The government’s operations and victories are measured neighborhood by neighborhood, with many more to be retaken.
Bulos’s account highlights the tenacity of the remaining ISIS fighters, who are heavily prepared for the Iraqi Security Force’s ongoing assault. The terrorist group frequently uses suicide car bomb missions against check points and other military targets, regardless of potential civilian casualties. The lack of armored Humvees in western Mosul will make the Iraqi’s even more vulnerable to such attack.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Trump administration have already loosened rules of engagement in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. U.S. commanders no longer have to relay fire requests to joint command centers, and have more battlefield authority. U.S. troops have also been deployed into Mosul city limits, providing support for Iraqi Security Forces during their continued push into the city.
“If there were no civilians, we’d just burn it all,” an Iraqi counter-terrorism commander lamented to The Washington Post in the early days of the Mosul battle. ISIS floods the streets with civilians when his forces enter, stopping the deployment of heavy munitions, he said. “I couldn’t bomb with artillery or tanks, or heavy weapons. I said, ‘We can’t do anything,'” he continued.
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