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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Battle-weary civilians tread a perilous path out of Mosul

In the ruins of the Old City, residents who escape increasingly desperate militants are then faced with Iraqi troops suspicious of suicide bombers.

A family walks past the destroyed Al Nuri Mosque as they struggle to muster the energy to escape the old city, where heavy fighting and an intense bombardment is exacting a high toll on civilians. Florian Neuhof  / The National
A family walks past the destroyed Al Nuri Mosque as they struggle to muster the energy to escape the old city, where heavy fighting and an intense bombardment is exacting a high toll on civilians. Florian Neuhof / The National

MOSUL // The family makes its way slowly through the maze of shattered buildings and rubble-strewn alleyways. By the time they cover the short distance to the destroyed Al Nuri mosque, once Mosul's most famous landmark, exhaustion has already separated the small group.

A gaunt old man with a bushy beard staggers past the mosque before dropping his bags and squatting on the floor. A few women in black abayas trickle past, struggling to keep going in the blazing mid-day sun. A man and his wife straggle behind, propping up a frail grey-haired woman.

Soldiers standing in the shade or sitting on top of their Humvees watch the civilians warily, and shoo them away as they get close.

"We tell families to return to their houses now. The soldiers at the front line tell them to go back," says one of the men.

In the Old City, the last area of Mosul still to be liberated from ISIL, suicide bombers blow themselves up among civilians who escape the fighting each day. Many of the bombers are women, the soldiers say. Fearing attack, soldiers often decline to help the families, and stop them from crossing the front lines.

But caution does not always win out over compassion. Seeing the couple struggle to haul the old woman to safety, an officer steps forward and helps carry her towards a Humvee. The family is packed into the armoured car and driven to a field clinic behind the front.

The men, women and children owe the soldiers more than just a ride out of the Old City, says Ahmed, one of the family. Their house was hit in an air raid, and they were buried under the rubble until they were dug out by the soldiers manning the front line, which brushes past the mosque as it snakes through the labyrinth of the Old City.

The troops at Al Nuri mosque belong to the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, or ISOF, which took the grounds of the mosque a few days earlier. Before retreating, ISIL blew up the centuries-old mosque where the terror group's leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate after conquering Mosul in June 2014.

After incurring heavy losses in more than eight months of fighting in Mosul, the Iraqi military command is determined to bring the battle to a swift conclusion, and is relying heavily on air support from the US-led coalition. Air strikes hit targets only metres from the mosque throughout the day, the high-pitched whistle of bombs preceding crashing explosions that send debris sent flying into the sky and plumes of smoke rising from the impact site.

The air strikes have helped ISOF in their advance, but they are exacting a heavy toll on the Old City and its inhabitants. Many of its old stone houses have been flattened, and bombs have crashed through the roof of more modern structures, turning them into hollowed out ruins. The smashed carcasses of cars lie overturned by the roadside, and deep craters block the streets wide enough for suicide car bombs to attack.

Throughout the battle for Mosul, ISIL has used civilians as human shields, shooting anyone who tries to cross the front lines to safety, and the intense bombardment is hitting families that the extremists are preventing from leaving.

"A lot of people are dying from the air strikes. We heard their screams coming from under the rubble all the time," says Wathah, a 15-year-old who managed to make his way to the field hospital with his parents and siblings.

"When there is one Daesh fighter in a house, they destroy the whole building, even if there is a family inside. They don't care," he says.

ISIL has adapted its human shield strategy in the Old City by using civilians as cover for their suicide bombers. The militants have pulled back into the Old City with their families. Their wives can be as fanatical as the fighters, and many are willing to die for their beliefs.

"There are a lot of suicide bombers now. Even women and kids. Yesterday, a family of seven blew themselves up, over there" says Diar Abat, an ISOF soldier, pointing down the road passing the mosque to the front line.

Once the symbol of ISIL's rise, the mosque and its bombed out environs is now the setting for the final acts of depravity by the terror group in Mosul. On the main road leading past the ruins, a patch of yellow powder colours the dirt. A mortar round filled with chlorine gas burst here, scattering the crystalised chemical agent.

ISIL has made increasing use of chlorine and mustard gas in Mosul as the territory under its control shrank.

"Usually they fire gas at us with mortars. When a round impacts and white smoke spreads, we know it is chlorine gas," says Falah Hassan, an ISOF soldier sitting on a battered sofa under the canopy of an empty shopfront a few steps away from the yellow patch.

Just in front of the sofa lies a piece of human flesh. It was torn off the body of a suicide attacker, he says with a grin. The 30-year-old soldier, who has been with the elite outfit for 10 years, pulls his cap down over his weatherbeaten face as he recounts the months of fighting in Mosul. The fighting in the Old City has been the hardest yet, he admits, but there are only a few hundred metres before they reach the Tigris river and crushed the last pocket of ISIL resistance in Mosul.

ISOF has been at the forefront of the fighting, and their losses have been heavy. While the Iraqi force refuses to divulge its casualty rates, a US budget request for military assistance to Iraq, released in May, puts the casualty rates of the elite soldiers at 40 per cent.

Hassan's steady gaze turns hard as he speaks of the many comrades he has lost since the battle to reclaim Mosul began in October last year.

"Daesh calls us suicidal because we never stop. Our friends have not died for nothing, we are going to avenge them," he says.

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