The operation took longer than expected and cost countless lives, but much of the city’s infrastructure was preserved, and daily life has already returned. That is in contrast to the operations to take back other cities from ISIS, including Ramadi and Sinjar, which were laid waste by airstrikes. More than a year since it was freed, not even the mayor of Sinjar has been able to return.
The fight for Mosul’s western half could be even more protracted than for its east. The west is home to neighborhoods of narrow streets, some so small that it will not be possible for Iraqi troops to enter them in their fortified Humvees. That means troops will need to enter on foot, making them even more vulnerable to suicide attacks, which were one of the main modes of combat used by ISIS in the battle for the east.
Because all five of the bridges spanning the Tigris have been bombed, Iraqi troops are being forced to trace a circuitous path to western Mosul in order to approach it from the south. Their first objective is the Mosul International Airport, just south of the city, and by midday, Iraqi forces had captured a string of villages, bringing them within six miles of the airfield, said officers from the advancing troops. Anticipating the offensive, ISIS damaged the airport, carving wide trenches onto the runways, as well as onto adjacent taxiways and aprons, leaving no paved portion of the airport available for use by aircraft, according to an analysis of satellite imagery by Stratfor.
While the airport may be unusable, taking it will mark a milestone for the offensive, as will the taking of the adjacent hilltop village of Abu Saif, which sits at a higher elevation than Mosul. Because of ISIS’ deft use of snipers, securing the high ground is crucial, and Iraqi forces were nearing the base of the hill by Sunday afternoon.
The troops’ push to the city will be complicated by two techniques that ISIS fighters recently perfected: They have built a network of tunnels, allowing them to hide from overhead surveillance, and their engineers have succeeded in arming drones, allowing them to both spot and bomb advancing columns from their underground hide-out.
Yahya Salah, whose neighborhood in eastern Mosul was liberated in November, described how Iraqi troops were just streets away when Islamic State fighters forced their way into his home, armed with a jackhammer. They herded Mr. Salah’s family into one of the bedrooms. From behind the closed door, Mr. Salah said he then heard a deafening sound, and realized the fighters were drilling a hole. “They worked without stopping – when one got tired, another took over, and they dug a hole that was 1.5 meters wide,” said Mr. Salah, who said his family was locked in the bedroom for three days. “When we said we were thirsty, they threw water bottles at us,” he said.
The fighters left at noon on the final day. The Iraqi Army arrived at sunset, unlocking the door. When they stepped into the rest of their house, the family found ceiling-high piles of dirt in three of their four bedrooms and a hole in the living room floor. The tunnel the fighters had dug stretched for dozens of yards, allowing the terror group’s foot soldiers to slip away.
Throughout the liberated areas of the city, residents have shown reporters similar tunnels, and officials expect the same in western Mosul. A photo essay published this weekend by ISIS titled “Life of Fighters South of Mosul” shows their soldiers cooking a meal on a kerosene stove, reading the Quran and praying inside a tunnel, wide enough for five men to stand side-by-side.
At the same time, ISIS has become better at the use of small drones, which are available off-the-shelf in malls across the region including in the city of Erbil, the nearest major town to Mosul. They use them both to pinpoint army positions, and to target them, and recently recovered ISIS documents show how the terror group has cobbled together its own drone program. Iraqi forces describe how they frequently see the 2- to 4-foot-long aircraft overhead, whining like a lawn mower. Then 30 minutes later, they will take incoming fire at that location.
“Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world, and the Iraqi forces have risen to the challenge,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the American-led effort against the Islamic State, in a news release from United States Central Command that announced the beginning of the long-anticipated operation. Some 450 American advisers are on the ground, helping Iraqi officers plan and execute the offensive.
Reached by telephone, residents in western Mosul described the elation they felt at the approach of government troops. “All we have left to eat is tomato paste. We are eating it with salt,” said 41-year-old Umm Anwar, who asked to be identified only by her nickname. “We are ready to kill ISIS ourselves with knives, or by biting them, because we are in so much pain.”