MOSUL, Iraq: When Islamic State militants in Mosul discovered that Ahmed’s brother had served in the army, they went to his house, pulled him into the street, and shot him dead as his parents watched.
Now, it was time for revenge, and after two years of ferrying the extremists around as a taxi driver, Ahmed had plenty of information to offer special forces at a command post in an east Mosul apartment on Friday.
“They’re in this church, and only God knows what goes on in there,” he told intelligence officers, pointing out map coordinates during a half-hour session. They met in a living room used to receive residents just a few blocks away from the battle, some seeking help, others being questioned, while the unlucky ones faced interrogation or stern reprimands for various infractions. Ahmed asked his full name be withheld for fear of reprisals.
With heavy weapons less useful in the dense urban alleyways of Iraq’s second city, local intelligence is growing in value. Special forces on the front lines are beefing up efforts to win civilians’ trust, passing out food and medicine and gleaning real-time information about the extremists they are fighting in pitched, house-to-house combat.
Classic counterinsurgency roles
In doing so, officers are also taking on classic counterinsurgency roles, becoming actors of local governance, addressing grievances and dispensing swift battlefield justice. The offensive to free Mosul of IS militants is now in its second month, and progress has slowed as troops try to avoid mass civilian casualties that could give the impression the Shiite-heavy military was riding roughshod over the city’s majority Sunnis.
While tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, over a million remain in their homes – some following official requests by the government to stay there, others preferring the risk of crossfire to spending the winter as an anonymous number in cold displacement camps.
In the Bakr neighborhood, parts of which are still contested, civilians lined the streets. Smiling children waved and greeted the troops, while younger men and elders watched convoys of Humvees pass with an air of skepticism.
Automatic rifle fire and heavy machine guns blasted all day from both sides, while mortars lobbed shells across neighborhoods, the city’s relentless soundtrack. In the dusty wasteland to the east, a family pushed a relative’s body on a cart back toward an aid station.
Part of the intelligence gathering is rough – in the Samah neighborhood, soldiers arrested at least two suspected IS militants, wrapping T-shirts over their heads and beating them in the street as they dragged them off. Not every combatant shares the government’s optimism that sectarian reconciliation can happen here. “Why do you speak to them? They’re all (IS),” one soldier said of civilians leaving homes to visit relatives further from the crossfire.
But the softer approach, as advancing forces have learned countless times in modern warfare, can yield more value, and keeping civilians on one’s side has become a major part of operations for Iraq’s special forces, known officially as the Counter Terrorism Forces.
Speaking in the Bakr apartment, Lt. Col. Ali Hussein said his forces have strict orders to take care of civilians to win the peace, but that they went a bit further, buying medicine for the old and infirm. “We pay with our own money, it’s the humane thing to do,” he said. “It’s a modest neighborhood and we have to keep a good reputation and show the civilians we are on the same side – Daesh has brainwashed them for two years,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
IS forces as well, driven underground and unable to group into formations for risk of attracting airstrikes, also realize the importance of information. On Friday alone, they sent three reconnaissance drones to scout positions in the district – the same amount as over the previous two weeks. “It was a big push, much more than normal,” Hussein said, showing off a damaged commercially available DJI Phantom 4 drone the size of a record player.
“We shot down two”
Fighting in built-up areas has slowed to a slog, as small numbers of IS snipers and suicide bombers in heavily-armored vehicles infiltrate neighborhoods to surprise troops and stunt advances. Battles play out on rooftops with IS forces holed up in buildings just a street or two away, with troops often jumping walls between houses to reach their positions.
On patrol, Iraqi forces here said that IS was now sending in two cars at a time packed with explosives. The first one destroys the giant sand barriers the army builds on side streets to create safe zones, and the second one races through the opened passage to attack troops. As a response, the special forces now line up parked civilian cars in front of the barriers.
Troops also listen in on IS radio traffic, where they can sometimes hear the extremists directing suicide bombers who can’t see through the heavy armor plating protecting their moving vehicles. Many of the dialects are foreign, including Gulf Arab and Egyptian.
As Hussein walked the streets with his troops, a man approached, beseeching the soldiers for help to protect his family on the IS-controlled side. After a brief stand-off, and the man lifting his shirt to show he wasn’t wearing explosives, he became the latest informer.
“They are knocking down walls so they can move house to house, and they’re approaching this line,” said the man, who also asked that his name be withheld for fear of IS reprisals. “They dig all night, we can hardly sleep.” After sunset, IS was burning tires and homes to obscure night vision scopes used by the special forces.
The patrol went to the neighbors to confirm the story, lecturing the man for crossing over the front line via a rooftop but letting him go after locals vouched for him. Speaking with elders, Hussein told families to stay indoors and explained that cars must have their tires flattened or be considered a security risk.
Another man was scolded for trying to break into a house, claiming his uncle had sent him to secure belongings. Soldiers pushed him by the shirt collar to the area’s de facto governor, who waved him off after some angry words.
“We cannot allow this,” said Hussein. “When civilians return they must not think that the special forces looted their homes.”-AP