Iraqi forces struggle to tell friend from foe

Facing a deadly dilemma in the streets of Mosul, Iraqi forces try to identify potential Daesh gunmen from residents.

Photo by: AFP (Archive)
Photo by: AFP (Archive)

Iraqis carry white flags as they flee to an area held by the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd Division in the Samah neighbourhood of Mosul.

While Iraqi forces try to reclaim the city of Mosul from Daesh, their biggest challenge lies in trust.

The streets of Mosul hold uncertainty that can result in civilian killings as they struggle to identify potential Daesh gunmen from residents.

The military regularly diverts resources to feed, transport and provide medical care to civilians caught in the crossfire, and soldiers constantly have to decide whether to risk their own lives or to open fire on potentially innocent civilians.

“No car is allowed here," said an Elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) soldier standing on the main road in Tahrir district where a car bomb had gone off moments earlier.

The CTS is a branch of Iraqi Armed Forces.

"We shoot any car we see moving, even if there is a family inside because there is a good chance they are wearing suicide vests."

Iraqi special forces run across a street after a Daesh suicide car bomb attack in the Tahrir neighbourhood of Mosul, Iraq. (Reuters)

The soldiers, who have rooftop lookouts across the front, say they have learned to identify potential assailants from afar through clues like dress and gait.

"They have destroyed the neighbourhood," said a young boy collecting unused machine gun rounds from the road amid clashes, though it was unclear which side he was blaming.

Earlier that day, a vehicle shielded with metal plates and driven by a suicide attacker burst into flames, causing several casualties.

Iraqi forces responded to the latest Daesh counterattack against their push to reclaim the northern city with heavy gunfire.

CTS forces posted at intersections along the road pounded targets a few hundred metres away.

At the same time, scores of residents carrying many of their belongings were fleeing across the frontlines as hundreds more crouched inside their homes in areas retaken by the military a day earlier.

Displaced people from Mosul and outskirts arrive in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from Daesh, east of Mosul, Iraq. (Reuters)

The operation to reclaim Mosul, that entered its second month on Thursday, is turning into the biggest battle in Iraq's turbulent history since the US-led invasion in 2003.

It is a joint military operation that was started by Iraqi Forces with the help of Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Popular Mobilisation Forces and an international coalition, to regain control in Mosul and topple Daesh since it took control of the area in 2014.

The heavy presence of civilians in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, has forced the government to slow its campaign which has nearly surrounded the metropolis but so far only breached Daesh’s defences from the eastern side.

Civilians Help Iraqi Forces

The Iraqis rely on informants inside the city -- both in Daesh-held areas and those recaptured -- for intelligence on everything from the location of gunmen to the habits and thinking of top leaders.

Earlier in the day, a man in the adjacent Zahra neighbourhood, which the military recaptured earlier this week, approached a black military Humvee to share a tip.

"Last night around 11 o'clock I heard a commotion in that house ... yes, the red one. It's a Daesh house. You guys need to search it," he told the driver through the window.

A white flag is seen on a bullet-ridden car in a deserted street in Mosul, Iraq. (AFP)

Another Zahra resident, Alaa Youssef, said civilians in Mosul had an obligation to inform the military about Daesh fighters who had hidden inside houses or shaved their beards and changed their clothing to blend in with civilians.

"It is (the civilians') last chance to have a role, not just in Tahrir, but in all of Mosul," he said outside his home, which had been hit by a Daesh mortar two days earlier.

"If they do not cooperate and work together, we will go back to the same situation."

The mixing of Daesh fighters with residents is slowing -- but not stopping.

The military's drive is to defeat a ruthless enemy while protecting civilians, said Captain Hussam al-Aboudi, who was commanding soldiers in Tahrir district on Thursday.

"We have sources, we have the names of Daesh fighters, we know them," he told Reuters.

"Residents also give us information - like they say, 'Daesh posted a sniper on top of my house.'"

TRTWorld and agencies