MOSUL, Iraq — The rip of machine gun fire disturbed the quiet on the second floor of a mosque in Mosul’s Zahra district. Lying on their bellies across the room, three Iraqi soldiers peered over the guns they’d pointed through smashed windows, anxiously scanning for ISIS fighters. A few feet away, their commander, Major Ziad al-Gubere, paced up and down, radio in hand, talking to other Iraqi Army units in the area.
Beyond the mosque was ISIS territory, and Gubere was trying to make sure his men killed the enemy fighters hoping to breach this front line. Outside in the street, a pile of tangled metal and rubble was stacked up on the road like a barricade from the French Revolution. “You see these guys?” Gubere asked in disgust, pointing over the pile. “One of them blew himself up over there.” Gubere is middle-aged and in constant motion: He always seemed to be marching somewhere, with others behind trying to catch up.
These dozen or so special forces soldiers from Iraq’s US-trained Golden Brigade have fought a series of grinding battles to make it to this point. Gubere’s men are part of the broad military push to take back Mosul, once Iraq’s second-biggest city, from the ISIS militants who have held it for more than two years. Reconquering the city is the biggest test to date of the Obama administration’s preferred strategy for defeating the group: using American airpower to pound the group from the air while helping to arm and train the loose alliance of Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish peshmerga forces, Shia paramilitaries, and Sunni tribal fighters battling ISIS on the ground.
The offensive began just over a month ago with a quick series of successful efforts to flush ISIS fighters out of villages on the outskirts of the sprawling city. Iraqi forces have retaken a third of the city east of the Tigris river, but the assault has slowed in recent days as the Iraqi forces entered Mosul’s densely packed streets. The fighting has morphed into bloody street-by-street, building-by-building urban warfare. Baghdad doesn’t release official casualty figures, but some medics estimate that it is at least in the low dozens. As of late October, US officials said ISIS had lost roughly 900 fighters.
But as troops like Gubere’s advance, they’re encountering all of the worst-case scenarios that US military planners had been predicting before the fighting got underway. ISIS suicide bombers are ramming heavily armored trucks into Iraqi positions, killing and maiming soldiers whose machine guns are powerless to stop the Mad Max–looking vehicles.
Networks of underground tunnels and pathways through neighborhoods are allowing ISIS fighters to ambush their enemies and then slip away. ISIS fighters set fire to barrels of oil so smoke will obscure their movements and make it harder for US warplanes and drones to target them. The group uses Iraqi civilians, including children, as human shields.
ISIS is also mounting sophisticated attacks combining car bombs with teams of fighters armed with suicide belts. The ISIS fighters attack in waves, firing their guns for as long as possible and then blowing themselves up to kill more Iraqi soldiers. In a nearby open market, now abandoned and pockmarked with bullet holes, flies buzzed around the bloodied body parts of ISIS fighters who killed themselves in a recent battle. Iraqi soldiers took pictures with their smartphones before wandering back to their front line barricade. An unexploded belt — khaki green, bloodied, and apparently abandoned — lay on a nearby market stall table.
The Iraqis are being helped by roughly 5,000 US troops who are nominally there solely to train and arm the Iraqi forces, in addition to a contingent of US special forces fighting directly alongside the Iraqis. American warplanes and artillery are also battering ISIS targets throughout the city, and the Pentagon says US and allied forces had, as of November 1, launched 2,400 precision bombs, artillery rounds, missiles, and rockets into the Mosul area since the campaign began on October 17.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced the use of Apache attack helicopters over Mosul. They can fly lower and slower than jets, allowing them to give fire support to Iraqi forces, but that also brings American pilots within close range of ISIS’s ground weapons.
ISIS, meanwhile, is defending the city with a hybrid of insurgent tactics and more conventional warcraft — a dark harbinger of what US-backed rebels may face in coming weeks when they ramp up an attempt to reclaim the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s headquarters and primary stronghold. Although the fight for Raqqa will be carried out by rebels rather than a conventional army as in Mosul, the current fighting could provide crucial intelligence on what they can expect from the ISIS fighters barricaded there.
Reclaiming Mosul and Raqqa would deal a serious blow to the group and rip out the heart of its self-proclaimed caliphate. But after spending three days with the Iraqi special forces, Iraq’s Ninth Armored Division, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters on the front lines of the battle here, it is clear to me this fight won’t be quick, won’t be easy, and won’t happen without significant numbers of military and civilian casualties.
Tunnels, armored car bombs, and the Islamic State’s new kind of guerrilla war
ISIS snatched control of Mosul in 2014 as it swept across the country, and has had two years to prepare for the moment Baghdad sent forces to take it back. Any hopes that ISIS wouldn’t stand and fight, or would make a strategic withdrawal to its Syrian capital in Raqqa, have disappeared fast.
Instead, the group has unleashed new weapons and planned innovative attacks that probe the Iraqi forces’ weak spots. Suicide car bombs are being fitted with a heavy armored casing so bullets can’t stop them as they appear around corners and careen toward soldiers in the city’s network of narrow streets. Unless soldiers have anti-tank missiles, there is little they can do when one of those car bombs approaches except look for cover and pray for safety.
“You have no choice; you have to run away,” said Kurdish peshmerga Col. Ahmad Mala Rash, in a town outside Mosul. “If he gets in the middle of us, he will kill all of us.”
In Mosul, cars can be hidden behind walls in small backyards. In response, civilians have been banned from driving, and roads are blocked with piles of dirt, scrap metal, and the debris of war, as Iraqi forces try to keep the deadly car bombs at bay.
“ISIS uses a new technique: They hide the car bombs between civilian houses,” said Gubere. “When we get close to them they send it to us.”
While we are in a house down the street from the mosque, Gubere hears on the radio that more ISIS fighters are approaching and sends half a dozen of his men to the roof. Gunfire erupts almost immediately.
“Your head, watch your head!” Gubere shouts at the young men as they pop up and down to shoot over the wall at ISIS fighters in a building next door.
“In the neighborhood in front of us there is a group of ISIS fighters, and a car bomb also,” a young Iraqi special forces soldier named Mohammed said during a short break from the shooting. Despite the circumstances, he is shy, and looks at the ground when speaking. “They always try to send car bombs.”
While the new car bombs compensate for ISIS’s lack of heavily armored vehicles, underground tunnels make up for their significantly smaller numbers. Up to 100,000 troops from various arms of the Iraqi military and allied factions are fighting what are believed to be less than 5,000 militants inside the city.
The extent of ISIS’s network of tunnels became clear when Kurdish peshmerga forces stormed the town of Bashiqa, 8 miles east of Mosul city, earlier this month. Throughout the town and countryside around it, ISIS fighters were able to pop up behind the advancing fighters and shoot at them before disappearing again. Although the Kurds did ultimately take the town, the tactic inflicted casualties as confused soldiers struggled to deal with a seemingly invisible enemy.
Inside one tunnel, sleeping mattresses were strewn along the dirt floors, along with uniforms, gas lanterns, and a wall clock. The atmosphere is muffled and repressive. The tunnel ends inside a house — the piled earth that was excavated to create the underground refuge is still in the room, hidden from the view of coalition drones.
Rash, the Kurdish colonel, walked through the tunnel ahead, stooped over under its low mud ceiling, gun hanging over his right shoulder.
“One ISIS fighter hid in a tunnel for five hours, with 60 peshmerga trying to get him out,” he said, astonished. “So they put tires inside the entrances and burned them. He suffocated.”
Entering underground passageways is deadly for Iraqi forces, as ISIS fighters hidden in the dark are ready to start shooting. Rash lost two of his men that way.
“ISIS were inside and we tried to control it. They shot them in the forehead — they were really good snipers,” he said.
Beyond the tunnels, ISIS fighters have torn holes in the walls separating Mosul’s tightly packed rows of houses and other buildings, allowing them to move from fighting position to fighting position without venturing outside. The fighters can take advantage of territory they know better than the attacking forces, flanking the Iraqi military as it moves through muddy streets slowly in Humvees.
Even when ISIS retreats, its fighters leave booby-trapped houses and streets behind. Iraqi bomb disposal experts are being maimed and killed by the cruel inventiveness of the group’s explosive experts. Abdullah Ali is a bomb disposal engineer with the Nineveh forces, a Sunni tribal group. Lying on a hospital bed in the Kurdish city of Erbil and clearly in shock, he told me what happened when he was south of Mosul trying to defuse an ISIS bomb.
“When I entered a house there was a barrel of gas, and I moved it and it exploded on me,” he said. There is a scabbed wound where his right eye used to be. He peered out through the left one, bloodshot and bruised.
“The bomb defusers are the most important people in the battle,” he added. Later, staring into the space in front of him he said, “We must continue this work. It’s no problem; we are all going to die.”
The Iraqi government does not release the number of soldiers killed in combat, and filming or photographing the dead is not allowed, making it difficult to tell how many troops have been killed so far. But the numbers are thought to be considerable.
Human shields, homemade white flags, and bodies in the rubble
Clearing the neighborhoods taken by the Iraqi security forces will require time-consuming and meticulous work by experts like Ali. Now, as the front line edges forward, behind it are growing areas with a thin security presence resembling a no-man’s land, save for the odd Humvees passing through on their way to and from the front line. Civilians are present in these areas, in their homes, but those fleeing the fighting deeper inside the city are a common sight, walking in slow, mournful lines, their children waving homemade white flags tied to the end of sticks.
In the Intisar neighborhood on the outskirts of Mosul, a middle-aged man who called himself Saad said the fighting in his street had been going on for three days. His tiny daughter, in a pink sweater, her hair in pigtails, held his hand and walked quietly. She did not flinch at the sound of outgoing mortars and gunfire in the distance. His five other children, wife, and two parents were somewhere in the crowd of people shuffling slowly down the road carrying blankets and small suitcases.
Occasionally the whiz of a bullet can be heard overhead in areas where civilians are fleeing.
“The danger is from the ISIS snipers,” said Saad.
People like him and his family are another tool for ISIS in this battle. Mosul is densely packed with an estimated 1 million civilians, many still living in their homes as the battles rage around them. They are an effective human shield for the militants against their enemies’ most efficient weapons.
“The coalition airstrikes are very limited, because there are too many civilians,” complained Ninth Armored Division Col. Mohaned Said Alwan, sitting next to a campfire. “Because there are civilians in the city, we can’t shoot freely.”
In the streets nearby, hundreds of people were finishing their miserable march from the fighting in their areas, waiting to be loaded onto trucks bound for refugee camps. Iraqi soldiers have no way of distinguishing ISIS fighters from the innocent.
Government food handouts are being provided in areas where people are able to stay in their homes. Many had to shelter for days as the battle raged, running out of supplies but too frightened to venture out.
“We were scared — we heard the rockets and were afraid they would hit us,” said one woman standing at her front door. “We were hiding in the house. We had no food, no water.”
Just down the street, men were anxiously standing in line for bags of food next to four mangled bodies of ISIS fighters, while Iraqi soldiers danced on top of their Humvees in celebration.
When the fight for Mosul ends, a civil war could erupt
The revelries often take on a sectarian tone. Shia flags with the face of Hussein Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and a major Shia religious figure, fly on the back of the Humvees of Iraqi special forces, and soldiers plant them on the houses where ISIS fighters had been based.
That highlights a serious risk: If and when Mosul is retaken, the Kurdish forces, Shia paramilitaries, and Sunni tribal fighters could find themselves fighting each other for control of the city and its surrounding areas.
Uniformed Iraqi soldiers could also be part of the fray; they are Shia-dominated, so it’s not clear if they would take up arms against their fellow Shia paramilitaries or perhaps merely stand aside.
ISIS espouses a radical, strict form of Sunni Islam, and its members were initially welcomed into places like Mosul and other predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq by some residents after years of sectarian discrimination by the Shia-dominated Baghdad government. Many have blamed the rise of ISIS on Baghdad’s systematic repression of Iraq’s Sunnis, which included moves like mass arrests, arbitrary detention, and the killing of Sunni protesters.
In a village on the outskirts of Mosul, Ninth Armored Division vehicles bumped down muddy streets with Shia flags flying next to the Iraqi flags on the back. Civilians ate handouts of rice and vegetables outside a nearby Sunni mosque.
I asked a soldier why a Shia flag was flying from its minaret. “It is a sign of our victory,” he answered.
For the most part, though, Shia militias have avoided entering Mosul or attacking its Sunni citizens. In a war-battered Iraq, where sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia have erupted into all-out civil war in the past, that counts as a major win.
After ISIS swept across Iraq in 2014 and easily overran the Iraqi military, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling for young Shia men to join various fighting groups to stop ISIS. The government called them Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), but few recognize them as anything other than Shia militias. Many are funded and commanded from Iran. That makes their involvement in the war against ISIS in Iraq deeply controversial.
When Iraqi troops took back Fallujah from ISIS in June, Shia militias were involved in detaining men who fled. Human Rights Watch has accused the groups of disappearing 600 Sunni men.
“We have seen in numerous occasion where their forces have taken part in operations to retake lands from ISIS that abuses have occurred,” Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher, said in September. “What we have seen is mostly men being abducted. Sometimes detained, tortured but then released, but on many occasions these men have never been seen again.”
Some of these same Shia militias fought and killed American soldiers in Iraq in the past. It is an ironic reflection of the complicated alliances being formed to fight ISIS that US airpower is now indirectly giving cover to such groups on the ground.
Just north of Tikrit, which is 200 kilometers south of Mosul, one such group — the Badr Brigades — were holding a dusty hilltop overlooking oil fields in September when their local commander told me that his organization would most certainly be involved in the operation for Mosul.
“What are the American forces in Iraq — their significance? The Badr Organization is Iraqi. America, what brought them?” he said to me. “The Iraqi is stronger. He defends his country.”
So far the militias are stationed outside Mosul, in a strategic eastern area near the Syrian border where they are hoping to retake the town of Tal Afar. Taking Tal Afar and the surrounding areas would cut supply lines between Mosul and ISIS-controlled Syria, as well as shut off potential escape routes for ISIS commanders during any retreat from Mosul.
However, the Iraqi government exercises little control over them, and if they enter Mosul itself, their presence would provide ISIS with a major propaganda victory and the sectarian showdown the group craves. ISIS is already drawing attention to Shia flags being flown by the military in its online videos. The most recent, released last week, shows ISIS fighters looting Humvees they have destroyed and angrily holding Shia flags up to the camera.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region east of Mosul have also warned against Shia militia involvement. Yet they, too, have been accused of using the fight for Mosul to their own benefit.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani told a local TV station on Wednesday that his forces would not retreat from areas Kurdish troops had retaken from ISIS before the battle for Mosul began. Some of those areas are disputed, and human rights organizations have accused Kurdish forces of destroying Arab homes.
However, US commanders point out that so far the cooperation among Iraq’s various fighting forces and factions already represents a victory of sorts given the clear dangers of the groups turning on each other.
“It is certainly a challenge — there are old rivalries that exist,” said US Army Col. Brett Sylvia, who heads up the US’s advise-and-assist program for Mosul. “What we are seeing in terms of the coordination and the collaboration that is taking place on the ground has been in my mind unprecedented. … People that in the past have had very divergent views are now all working together against one common enemy.”
Mosul is a battle. It’s not the entire war.
The complexities of building a cohesive alliance among various groups to fight ISIS will likely be harder for the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s caliphate.
Take Turkey, which has deployed troops to both Iraq and Syria. Although Turkish troops are not thought to be actively fighting in the offensive in Mosul, they are fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria. Turkey supports the Iraqi Kurdish fighters, but is strongly opposed to Syria’s YPG Kurdish fighters because it claims they are affiliated with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he would strongly oppose YPG units being involved in the offensive to retake Raqqa.
Despite this, a US-backed rebel group called the Syrian Democratic Forces announced the start of an offensive to retake Raqqa earlier this month named Operation Euphrates Wrath. The SDF are largely made up of Syrian Kurds, though they claim to have Arab fighters also.
It is still not clear if Turkish troops will be directly involved in the fight for Raqqa, and, if so, what role they might play alongside such groups they are so deeply opposed to.
Operation Euphrates Wrath has so far included limited operations far outside Raqqa city, and is not expected to reach Raqqa itself for months. Similarly, when the Iraqi government announced the beginning of the offensive on Mosul in March, it was more than six months before the real push toward the city began. In the intervening time, political agreements were needed among the various groups involved in the fight. Those trying to gather together Kurds, Arabs, Turks, and Americans on the Syrian side will have an even tougher political challenge.
There is undoubtedly also political pressure on men like Major Gubere to keep pushing forward in Mosul. Both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and US President Barack Obama are eager to claim victory over ISIS, and a fresh push toward the Tigris river is expected in the coming days.
“Hopefully victory is coming soon,” said Major Ehab Razaq, while driving a Humvee away from the front line. “We will liberate all of Iraq, especially the people of Mosul.”
But liberating the people of Mosul will involve the deaths of a tragically high number of them. A similar situation will likely play out in Raqqa as well, as anti-ISIS forces close in. Neither city will be taken without significant bloodshed.
The US and its allies are winning the battle. Winning the war is going to be much harder.
Jane Ferguson is a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour. She has lived in the Middle East for nine years, and is based currently in Beirut, Lebanon.
She took these photos from the front lines in Mosul in November 2016.