Danger and relief as Iraqi Special Forces push deeper into Mosul

QADISIYAH, IRAQ — An explosion went off outside the safe house where Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saadi kept watch over his men. Another suicide car bomb had detonated.

Yahoo News went to the frontline at Iraq’s Qadisiyah district in northeastern Mosul, to find out how the CTS forces were faring in their effort to push back the Islamic State.

Since the start of the operation in October, Iraqi forces have been able to retake considerable ground in the Mosul area from the militants, and are now making incursions into the city itself.

In the safe house, the sounds of clashes less than 500 feet away were loud, and explosions shook the walls. Gunfire could be heard from snipers and CTS forces exchanging fire.

Saadi told Yahoo News that at Qadsiyah, “We are going a bit slower because of the civilians, we don’t want to hurt them in any way. As you hear now, we are only using smaller weapons like the M4 [carbine] and the Kalashnikovs. For now, we are trying not to use air strikes because ISIS is among the civilians.”

Saadi took us to another house closer to central part of the district. A man lay dead in the dirt next to the house. Saadi confirmed he was an ISIS fighter.

Carefully stepping through the opening where a wall had been destroyed, we skirted an improvised explosive device (IED) and climbed the stairs to the roof. Saadi pointed to other rooftops where suspected the snipers were waiting. None could be seen, but the general was careful not to step out into the open.

ISIS is using suicide car bombs, IEDs and mortars as primary weapons, supported by snipers in urban areas.

A group of IDPs coming to an aid and transport station, the child waves a white flag to signal they are not ISIS. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

“It’s really hard to distinguish between ISIS and civilians,” Saadi said, “as they use civilians as shields, we ask [civilians] to stay in their houses while we liberate a street in the neighborhood. After we pass them, they can go to safer areas.”

Many of the rooftops have white flags on them as a signal to Iraqi forces that the family members are civilians and not associated with ISIS.

As we descended to the street and hurried back to the safe house we could hear shooting.

Two CTS soldiers took Yahoo News to another side of the neighborhood, at the edge of the fighting, which had been liberated the day before.

The pops of gunfire could still be heard. And the crowd of civilians was in range of mortars.

Hundreds of civilians were lined up to receive food and aid from Iraqi Interior Ministry volunteers. Others were in groups sitting on the ground, so that the guards could control the crowds waiting their turn to join the lines. Women and children were given priority over the men.

Women lined up waiting to get aid from Iraq’s Interior Ministry. (Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

Families took turns receiving aid boxes from volunteers. Women waiting in line talked among themselves, thanking the Iraqi Army for their freedom. One woman said, “Life was very hard under [ISIS]. I wish for safety for all the people here.”

An 8-year-old boy described his life under ISIS: “They didn’t let us go out and play. They punished people for smoking and not having beards.”

Mohammed, a father of six children, told Yahoo News, “When ISIS came, everything stopped, food, schools, work, there was no life. They prevented the people from everything.”

On the way back to the safe house, Yahoo News asked CTS officials if they worried about further sectarian fighting after ISIS was defeated.

One of the escorts, Mohammed, lit a cigarette, and said casually, “Certainly, after liberation, there will be groups trying to fight with the army. There will be a unit that will stay in Mosul to take care of those groups.”

The driver, Sarhad, said, “Our duty is to liberate it. After that, we don’t know what will happen, but every city will have an [Iraqi Army] unit to protect it.”

Then Yahoo News left the safe house, and we drove around to another side of the district, where yet another CTS unit was fighting in a densely populated urban area.

Less than 300 feet from the checkpoint at the fighting line, there was a small snack shack open in the destroyed area where a number of men and boys sat, talking and laughing.

Majid is a mathematics teacher in Qadisiyah. He told Yahoo News that after ISIS took over, “They changed the books.” He said that even in math, the students were learning addition and subtraction using examples of guns and bullets. One lesson read: “There are 10 Iraqi soldiers and one of us goes to detonate ourselves among them, how many will be left?”

Majid, a teacher who said he did not want to teach the ISIS curriculum. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

Majid said he told ISIS he refused to teach the curriculum, but the armed group had already hung one woman for refusing, so he kept teaching. There were very few children in his class, and he had not received a salary for two and a half years, “No one can imagine how hard of a life we lived,” he said, “Only God knows how hard it was. It was a disaster to live like this.”

The Iraqi Special Forces continued to exchange fire with ISIS inside the center of Qadisiyah, when a small truck pulled up from the direction of the village center and a young man walked up to the snack bar and introduced himself as Nassir, a 19-year-old operative for CTS, delivering food items to soldiers in the fight.

He told Yahoo News that the day before, “About 20 civilians came to us. ISIS was shooting at them. Two or three of the women got shot.”

He tried to help people get out, but snipers were still able to hit his truck. He walked around the truck and pointed to the bullet holes. “I drive very fast,” he explained, “That’s why I can get away.”

Nassir left home at 15 and worked as a translator for U.S. forces. He later joined the Iraqi Army, but his family is still in Mosul, “[ISIS] came to my family [in the beginning] to ask about me. ‘Where did he go?’ they asked, but my family said they didn’t know. When they asked why my family didn’t control me, they assured them they didn’t know where I went.”

Nassir wears a mask and said he didn’t want his photo shared, to protect his family. He hopes he will be reunited with them when the battle for Mosul is finally over.

After Nassir left, the CTS soldiers standing guard shared their lunch with Yahoo News and showed off their tattoos.

After lunch, we followed a caravan of armored Hummers into a neighborhood just to the north of Qadisiyah, where much of the fighting continues. The armored caravan was protecting a group of generals and commanders that had marched out on foot in a show of support for their troops.

Two CTS guards head toward the fighting checkpoint. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

Reaching one of the main roads into the neighborhood, we waited for CTS troops to signal that it was safe to cross, as the danger of snipers was imminent. After crossing safely, we drove down a narrow residential road where civilians peeked out from the homes, some watering plants, others cheering. The caravan paused for a few moments before moving on, and as our car moved forward, a small mortar could be heard behind us. It had been fired into crowd, and the sound popped right behind our vehicle. But it did not hit the car, and it was not clear what damage it had caused.

Finally, we reached a small aid station outside Gojali, a village liberated a few days before, where the Iraqi Army had set up a station to give medical assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs) and load them onto trucks to take them to camps.

When a group of veiled women approached the aid station, Iraqi Security Forces stopped the women and asked each of them to lift their veils, to make sure they weren’t men in disguise. Iraqi forces have encountered male suicide bombers in recently liberated villages, and are cautious of groups of women traveling unescorted.

Another group of mostly male IDPs were already loaded onto a truck. One of the boys poked his head over the top and asked a guard, “Can I turn on my mobile?”

The guard replied, “You can do anything you want except blow yourself up.” The boy smiled and ducked back into the truck.

Another explosion went off in the distance, and smoke was seen rising in the air. The sun started sinking and the trucks roared into gear.

While the Iraqi Special Forces continue to push toward the center of Mosul, they know they have a tough fight ahead of them. For the civilians trapped in their homes, liberation can’t come soon enough.

An Iraqi soldier carries a child as he helps a woman who crossed from an Islamic State fighters-controlled part of Mosul into an Iraqi special forces soldiers-controlled part of Mosul, Iraq November 14, 2016. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

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Ash Gallagher is a multimedia journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.