BAGHDAD/BARTELLA, IRAQ/MOSUL IRAQ – Islamic State fighters retreating in the face of a seven-week Iraqi military assault on their Mosul stronghold have hit back in the last two days, exploiting cloudy skies that hampered U.S.-led air support and highlighting the fragile army gains.
In a series of counterattacks since Friday night, the jihadi fighters struck elite Iraqi troops spearheading the offensive in eastern Mosul, and attacked security forces to the south and west of the city.
On Sunday two militants tried to attack army barracks in the western province of Anbar. Police and army sources said the attackers were killed before they reached the base.
Iraqi officials say they continue to gain ground against the militants who still hold about three-quarters of the country’s largest northern city, which is Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
One military source said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived. “We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said.
But the fierce resistance means the military’s campaign is likely to stretch well into next year as it seeks to recapture a city where the jihadis are dug in among civilians and using a network of tunnels to launch waves of attacks.
This has prompted fears among residents and aid groups of a winter food, water and fuel supply crisis for the million residents still in Islamic State-held areas of the city, and calls to speed up operations.
“Daesh (Islamic State) still controls our neighborhood, and the Iraqi forces have not taken a single step forward in three weeks. We’re in despair,” said a resident in Mosul’s southeastern district of Intisar, where the army’s Ninth Armored Division has struggled to make gains.
“My family and I have been sleeping under the concrete stairs in our house for a month now, afraid of the random bombardment between the Iraqi forces and the Daesh elements,” he told Reuters by telephone.
The capture of Mosul, the largest city under control of Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, is seen as crucial toward dismantling the caliphate the militants declared over parts of the two countries in 2014.
Some 100,000 Iraqi government troops, Kurdish security forces and mainly Shiite militiamen are participating in the assault on Mosul that began on Oct. 17, with air and ground support from a U.S.-led international military coalition.
A Reuters reporter in Bartella, about 10 km (6 miles) east of Mosul, saw tanks and army trucks heading toward the city on Sunday. Mud caused by recent rains was hindering movement and there was less artillery fire than in recent days.
“For the past two days there was almost no fighting,” said a man who gave his name as Suleiman, who had fled Mosul.
A spokesman for the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) who have been leading the Iraqi army advance in Mosul denied any let-up in the overall campaign.
“The operation is continuing on all fronts — there’s no halt on any front,” spokesman Sabah al-Numani told Iraqi television.
Iraqi commanders say they have killed at least 1,000 Islamic State fighters. A government adviser estimated the jihadi group now had about 4,000 fighters in Mosul.
The military has not given figures for its own casualties. The United Nations said last week nearly 2,000 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed across Iraq in November — a figure that Iraq says was based on unverified reports.
The elite CTS units and the armored division have captured around half of the eastern side of Mosul, which is split down the center by the Tigris River.
A U.S.-led coalition has bombed four of the five bridges across the river, aiming to stem a flow of suicide car bombers from the west, targeting the army in the eastern neighborhoods.
Officers say Islamic State has deployed more than 650 car bombs since the campaign started on Oct. 17 but say the pace of attacks has fallen off.
The militants, who have dug in and prepared their defense since seizing Mosul in mid-2014, have also struck with volleys of mortar bombs and used a network of tunnels to target soldiers.
In the Intisar district, the tanks of the armored division deployed there have struggled to adapt to close-quarter urban warfare, and commanders have summoned infantry reinforcement, an officer told Reuters.
Commanders also hope to stretch Islamic State defenses more thinly, by opening new fronts inside the city.
The head of the police rapid response forces, stationed a few miles south of Mosul on the west bank of the Tigris, told Iraqi television on Saturday evening his units were awaiting orders to advance north toward the city.
First they must take control of the Islamic State-held village of Albu Saif, the last obstacle before reaching Mosul airport on the southern edge of the city.
A military statement said the army had captured on Sunday three villages near the town of Shirqat, farther south from Mosul and close to the sites of two attacks on Friday night by Islamic State fighters that killed 12 people.
Police and army sources said eight policemen were killed in Shayala village, north of Shirqat in one of the Friday night raids. Four other members of the security forces were killed at the same time in the village of Naml, south of Shirqat.
The army on Sunday was advancing slowly on the east bank of the Tigris, across the river from Shirqat, toward the Islamic State-held town of Hawija, the sources said.
Chaos meanwhile erupted in eastern Mosul on Sunday when hundreds of civilians overwhelmed aid trucks distributing food and water.
The Iraqi government has called on Mosul’s residents to stay in their homes during the operation to retake the city from the Islamic State group, hoping to avoid large-scale displacement, but as progress on the ground slows, hundreds of thousands are now stuck with dwindling food and water supplies.
The Iraqi government sent truckloads of food, heating oil and drinking water to residents in areas retaken from IS on Sunday, but few of the trucks could make it to civilians trapped near front-line fighting.
“There is no justice,” Abu Ahmed said during a chaotic distribution in the Samah neighborhood on the eastern edge of Mosul. “Some people took so many bags of food and others got nothing.” He asked that his full name not be used out of security concerns.
While the trucks bore banners identifying them as distributing aid on behalf of the local government, there were no government or security officials present in Samah during the melee that ensued.
Men, women and children fought over bags of flour and baskets of apples.
“We are desperate, this is the first time I’ve seen aid trucks,” Abu Ahmed said. He said the food and water residents had stockpiled before the start of the operation had run out.
At one point, Iraqi soldiers fired into the air in an attempt to clear the street to make way for ambulances carrying casualties from the front.
Younis Shamal, a teenager from Mosul, watched crowds fighting over food and water scatter from the far side of the road. “Our lives used to be very normal, we would just go to work and come home at the end of the day,” he said, “this has turned us into uncivilized people.”
More than six weeks in, the battle for Mosul is proceeding slowly, with Iraqi forces battling street by street against heavily armed militants who have launched scores of suicide car bomb attacks.
In the Shaimaa neighborhood, soldiers and IS fighters exchanged heavy gunfire from rooftops as Iraqi forces tried to advance down narrow residential streets. IS militants shelled the district with a heavy barrage of mortar rounds, according to AP reporters at the scene.
Diaa Sallal, a senior Iraqi relief official, told The Associated Press that the supplies were being delivered to the towns of Bartella and Qayara, near Mosul, as well as two outlying Mosul neighborhoods. Sallal, reached by telephone in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, gave no further details.
Scores of families continue to brave ongoing fighting to flee IS-held districts for the relative safety of neighborhoods retaken by government troops or camps for the displaced outside the city.
Deeper inside Mosul, Iraqi special forces set up a tight security perimeter around a more organized aid distribution in the Bakr neighborhood. Hundreds of men and women lined up along a residential street as Iraqi special forces handed out boxes of aid.
But with the front line just over a hundred meters (yards) away, only a small number of aid trucks could reach the neighborhood.
Soldiers screened the civilians as gunfire echoed nearby. Ambulances and armored vehicles carrying wounded soldiers came screaming past after an IS suicide car bomb struck a nearby army position.
Elsewhere in Iraq, security forces in the northern Kurdish region shot and killed two of four people who resisted arrest in a village near the Iranian border. Nasah Mala Hassan, the mayor of a nearby town, said the other two blew themselves up, and that an armed Kurdish civilian was killed. It was not immediately clear whether the suspects were members of an armed group.