Monday 23 April 2018

As Isil's reign of terror in Mosul nears an end, its cruelty remains

Displaced Iraqi families who fled from Isil militants wait for a security check in Mosul. Photo: Reuters.
Displaced Iraqi families who fled from Isil militants wait for a security check in Mosul. Photo: Reuters.

Shona Murray

'We've been humiliated. There was no food, no water - only death. Look at the children," says 30-year-old Iraqi woman Um Akram from the Suq Al Shaarin neighbourhood of the Old City of Mosul, the epicentre of Isil's last stand in the country.

She cradles an emaciated and malnourished baby girl. Fatima, her one-year-old daughter, lies flaccid in her mother's arms, her desolate expression bearing out the horror borne by all civilians in Mosul, but especially so in the last few days and weeks, as Isil, the most violent and macabre jihadist organisation, fights to the death.

Mohammad Talal Tawran, who lost his family in an air strike as they tried to leave the Old City. Photo: Shona Murray
Mohammad Talal Tawran, who lost his family in an air strike as they tried to leave the Old City. Photo: Shona Murray

Civilians in the Old City have been used as human shields - they're shot if caught trying to leave. "We just arrived here this morning. We haven't seen any doctors to get medicine for the baby yet," says Ms Akram at the edge of the frontline.

It is almost 10am and already close to 50C. All that remains of Isil's tyrannous reign in Iraq's ancient, once-prosperous, second largest city is the group's diminishing control in a few back alleys and winding streets in the Old City.

Ms Akram has been brought safely across the frontline after escaping from her house in the middle of the night. She is joined by six other women and their children. All of their husbands have been killed or are missing. The booming bombardment of coalition air strikes and rapid gun fire sounds loudly amid the sweltering heat and heavy tension. For several days, smouldering black smoke has darkened the sky above the last 300-500 metres of territory in the Old City which Isil still occupied.

As of today, that area has been reduced to a 50-metre strip on one side of the city and 200 metres on the other, according to the US army.

For the last few days, Isil has been burning crude oil in an effort to thwart the direction and accuracy of precision-guided smart bombs. Extolling the maximum death toll and casualty rate possible is the only lasting mark it could hope to achieve in this fight, and it is putting in great efforts to do so. Rounds and rounds of indiscriminate mortar fire are released by the flailing terror group, most of them landing on fleeing civilians, maiming and killing people as they follow the same worn paths beaten by other desperate families in a bid to stay alive.

Taking shelter in the shade of a wall close to the frontline of the battle between the Iraqi-led coalition, which receives strong US support, and around 200-300 remaining Isil fighters, Ms Akram is also emaciated and jaundiced - the result of several weeks without steady water or food. They were warned by Isil that they would face torture or execution if they tried to flee. "I haven't eaten anything in several days, but we were too frightened to eat anything. Daesh warned us if we try to leave they will shoot us," she said, using an Arabic name for Isil.

"My husband was shot and then killed by an Isil mortar 10 days ago after he tried to leave the house.

"Now I have nobody, and our three children are sick. I hope we can get to the east of the city because I have a sister there."

Moments later two men covered in dust emerge from the frontline, shouting hysterically.

"I wasn't able to save my two kids," says one of the men. "My seven-year-old son was having his breakfast. We were about to leave the house, he had his backpack on his back and was getting ready to go. In an instant, we were covered in rubble and my family is dead."

He is Mohammad Talal Hawran from Suq Al Yahud in the Old City.

"All my family is gone," he cried. "I need help to get them out of the rubble, to try to get their bodies."

He begs armed soldiers to return with him to remove them from the rubble. His pleas are impossible to grant during such intense combat.

"I saved my brother and mother, and his mother," he says, pointing to his neighbour, Dhia Ghanim. The two families were planning on making the journey together that morning. Moments later, six children and both of their wives were dead from an air strike.

In contrast to the combat zone in Mosul's Old City, hundreds of Iraqis are taking the chance to return to their homes in the east of Mosul.

The Iraqi army says it cleared the area of Isil activity, but there remains an unknown quantity of unexploded mortar bombs - some of them highly visible, with several jutting out of the roof of local schools. Isil sleeper cells are also present and special units of the army, including the counter-terrorism agency aided by bomb-disposal teams, scour houses for bombs and operatives.

Isil had long planned for the oncoming offensive and booby-trapped the whole city. Its remaining inner sanctum is so heavily laden with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) it has slowed down the final days of the offensive. Two female suicide bombers detonated their belts during the Islamic festival of Eid; one in east Mosul and one at a camp for internally displaced people outside the city, according to Kris Phelps, a co-ordinator with World Vision. He is setting up child-friendly places for children psychologically scarred by war in the east of Mosul.

In the last few days, Isil has sent out a number of female suicide bombers among civilians fleeing from the Old City, who detonated their explosives at the first point of Iraqi-army screening. Sources say the women were the wives of Isil fighters, who are joining in the final days of the fight in the hope that martyrdom will be awarded to them and their husbands. Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS) carefully vets the trickle of people coming from behind enemy lines. Women are ordered to remove their niqabs (full face cover) and any other extra coverings. Men are ordered to stand still and remove their shirts and trousers and are thoroughly checked for explosives before their names are entered into an intelligence database to check if they are members of Isil. "We also have informers among us who are identifying the Daesh members coming through the Iraqi line from the Old City," explains Mohammad Tariq Ali, Commander of the 16th Division of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

'We're worried about more women suicide bombers," he says. "We had one of them blow herself up at the checkpoint of ICTS counter-terrorism forces two days ago. I expect that with the support from God and the ICTS forces, this will be finished in a couple of days," he says.

Other last vestiges of Isil's reign of terror are the hauntingly empty towns on the outskirts of the city. The town of Al-Hamdaniya in East Mosul, once home to thousands of Iraqi Christians, is now quite simply a ghost town. All Christians fled during the initial lightning advance of the group in June 2014 which saw it declare its Islamic caliphate from the now destroyed Al Nuri Mosque in the centre of Mosul. It was during this time the group began its genocide against the local Yazidi tribe, as well as massacring, torturing and executing all other Iraqi civilians the group accused of behaving "un-Islamic".

It was then it showed to the world the unfaltering depths to which it would go to wreak unfettered violence against anyone in its path; the only thing remaining these weeks is its unmistakable contempt for humanity.

Irish Independent

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