'The coming battle for west Mosul will be one of snipers'
Akram Mahsen, a 25-year-old Iraqi federal police sniper, squinted through his scope at a black flag hanging limply a kilometre distant at the Mosul airport. Beyond that lay west Mosul, the last major urban stronghold in the country held by Isil.
"This coming battle for Mosul will be between the snipers," Mr Mahsen predicted. "Snipers, plus car bombs," a comrade lounging on the rooftop next to him interjected.
The final chapter of the battle for Mosul is expected to play out in the densely populated neighbourhoods west of the Tigris River, which currently demarcates the line of liberation in the city. A trapped civilian population and tight warrens of narrow streets are expected to make progress painstaking for the Iraqi Security Forces. First though they'll need to retake the airport.
"The fight for the airport is likely to be tough," federal police commander Colonel Aiser Amer said from a vantage point overlooking an overgrown runway yesterday. "Isil have selected it as its defensive line between us and Mosul," he said.
Fighting since October has freed the eastern districts of Mosul but the current phase of the operation launched on Monday, with federal police recapturing a number of lightly defended hamlets south of the city. They faced a by-now familiar combination of suicide truck bombs, mortars, rockets and sniping, with the addition of explosives dropped from Isil drones.
While other federal police units awaited further reinforcements and orders to advance - expected imminently - the sniper battalion were active scoping the battlefield yesterday. Prone forms in ghillie suits, the sharpshooters peered through holes chipped in rooftop walls looking for two things: Isil fighters and fleeing civilians.
Differentiating between the two often involved split-second decision-making Mr Mahsen said, and was likely to become even more difficult as they moved closer to the city. "Mostly what we've seen today though is Isil retreating," he said. "They're getting ready to fight for the airport."
Isil, for its part, has notoriously accurate snipers, which its propaganda arm has shown off in slick showreels featuring compilations of their kills in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. The deadliest of its sharpshooters are said to be foreign fighters hailing from Chechnya and the Caususes. Mr Mahsen believed these elite snipers would be lying in wait inside the city. "The ones out here now are just shooting at the civilians as they flee," he said.
The day before, around 100 families had managed to safely cross the frontlines from nearby villages. "We're waiting now for the last of the civilians to leave the area before we continue the advance," said Hassan Farhan Abbas, a federal police soldier looking out at the battlefield from atop a blue Humvee painted in digital camouflage.
While over 160,000 civilians have been displaced during the Mosul offensive, comparatively few have managed to escape from west Mosul, where the UN warns that an estimated 750,000 residents face starvation in siege-like conditions. As many as 250,000 could flee in the coming fighting, the UN fears.
Federal police units first entered Mosul late in December after the offensive stagnated into street-by-street fighting. Their call up was seen by some as a sign that the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) carrying out the bulk of the fighting was suffering unsustainable casualties.
After nearly a month off to rest and regroup though, ISOF troops were returning to duty yesterday. ISOF has spearheaded nearly every major victory against Isil in Iraq and its return to the battlefield is seen as a further sign that the offensive is about to regain major momentum.
At a rear base several kilometres behind the frontlines at Albu Saif, a room full of ISOF commanders in a requisitioned home discussed the coming battle. While the federal police plan to attack the airport, ISOF troops are expected to advance on a nearby former military base. "The camp should be easy enough but beyond that we've heard they have a lot of fighters," said Major Diya Thaiya Omara. "Getting through to the edge of the city will get tough."
"East Mosul was hard at the beginning," said Major Qosay Kanani. "We're expecting more of that."
"I just want to finish this," said Maj Omara. "Let's retake this city and free these civilians." (© Daily Telegraph London)