The war to take back Daesh-controlled parts of Iraq has entered what could be its most decisive – and destructive phase. A handful of holdouts are making their last stand in Mosul, as the battle has evolved into an intense, close-quarters battle.
“This is the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II,” US Central Command’s General Stephen Townsend said this week. “It is tough and brutal.”
Recent fighting has centred on the Al Nuri mosque in Mosul's Old City – the place from where Daesh's leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared his caliphate nearly three years ago and began sweeping up territory across Iraq and Syria.
But the operation to recapture Mosul is taking much longer than officials expected when the offensive began last October.
Why is recapturing Mosul so difficult?
With Iraqi and coalition forces having already retaken Mosul’s western bank, the fighting has now moved into the densely-populated city centre on the eastern side of the Tigris River, which Daesh still controls.
Now long past the stage where they could rely on long-range artillery and their superior air power, the Iraqi Army and US-coalition partners are now moving forward block by block, clearing the city of militants house by house.
It has proven to be a bitter struggle. With every street that is reclaimed, a wave of civilians flees from their homes, often under a hail of bullets exchanged between Daesh and the front line of Iraqi soldiers. But the UN estimates that up to 750,000 residents could still be trapped in the city.
Fleeing residents say they have been used as human shields by militants who shelter in their homes. Iraqi generals say Daesh is using civilians as part of a deliberate strategy to slow the Iraqi Army’s advance by penning the hostage close to the front lines.
So far, it's led to disastrous consequences.
An air strike on March 17 flattened an entire block in central Mosul's Jadida district – but it didn't hit its target. When the wreckage was cleared, the bodies of over 200 civilians were discovered.
Survivors of the strike said an apartment complex was destroyed with many of their family members still inside. Though there may have been some Daesh fighters there, the majority killed were civilians being held as hostages.
More than a week later, bodies were still being pulled from the rubble.
The Iraqi government has laid blame for the butchery in March on the Americans forces, who have stepped up air strikes in support of Iraqi ground forces in recent months.
CENTCOM has promised an investigation into the March 17 air strikes, and acknowledged that the US-coalition air strike “probably” had a role in that attack – a rare admission that came from top US officials.
"When the coalition sees a sniper on a home, it's five or ten minutes before that house is hit," Mohammed Mahmoud, a 40-year-old former police officer, told Reuters. "But they don't kill the Daesh militants. Daesh withdraw, and the strikes end up killing civilians – whole families."
As many as 700 civilians have been killed since the latest round of fighting began on February 19, the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights has has reported.
Who's fighting whom?
Daesh's last remaining fighters have fortified their positions in Mosul. The city, Iraq's second largest, is the capital of the so-called "caliphate" which Daesh declared after expelling the Iraqi army and federal police in June 2014. At first, the militants sought to present themselves as liberators to the local population, which is majority Sunni Arab, and viewed the Shia-dominated federal government in Baghdad as corrupt and unpopular.
Daesh went on to establish an ultra-strict rule by violence, with uncompromising punishment for any who opposed the new regime. It since conducted a campaign of attacks and suicide bombings against the Iraqi population, killing and injuring thousands of civilians and sending the already-divided country further into a downward spiral.
An alliance as diverse as the country itself, Iraq's security forces consist not of a single standing army but separate groups of militias which have put their politics aside to fight Daesh. In October, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi announced the beginning of operations intended to "completely retake" Mosul, enlisting help from the US-coalition's air support and Special Forces advisor Iraqi units on the ground.
Iraqi commanders usually call in the location to request air support, which can come within minutes. But rights groups say that coalition forces are not doing enough to protect civilians – especially after residents were told to remain in their homes to avoid the fighting.
What will the outcome mean for the region?
Iraq is a key battleground for eliminating Daesh from the region. Iraqi forces have already begun cutting into the territory to Mosul's west, which connects to the group's Syrian stronghold, which will likely follow soon after in a final push to eliminate the so-called caliphate.
Expelling Daesh from Iraq will mean bringing the country back under control of Iraq's central government. While a significant victory against the militant group, it will also mean a return to unresolved matters in Iraq's politics that have been tabled since the Mosul operation began.
Nineveh, the sprawling western Iraqi province where Mosul is located, has long been an underdeveloped and impoverished part of the country. Iraqi citizens who have newly escaped from the nightmare of life under Daesh wait out a taxing and uncertain future in crowded refugee camps for the government to show them something they can put their faith in.
Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region – which has lent considerable assistance to the war effort, as well as to training a police force that would work to maintain security in Mosul once it is liberated – is eyeing a referendum on declaring independence. If the region breaks away from the central government, it could call Iraq's tenuous unity further into question.
Author: Shawn Carrié