Mosul: ISIS wives turn into suicide bombers - Times

An Iraqi tank joins the fight to drive the last remaining Islamic State forces from the city of Mosul
ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS
An Iraqi tank joins the fight to drive the last remaining Islamic State forces from the city of Mosul ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS
Victory crawls slowly through the ruined alleys of Mosul’s Old City, beneath a blazing summer sky rank with the smell of rotting bodies, where the only sounds are those of a continuing battle that should have ended weeks ago.

(thetimes) -- Iraqi troops will vanquish the last ISIS units here, but the battle is not yet won.

With neither the desire nor option to surrender, about 200 Isis fighters, backed by their suicide bomber wives, are making a last stand among the ruins, defending a shrinking sliver of territory only 150 yards wide.

Their resistance prevents any formal declaration of victory over ISIS in Mosul by the Iraqi authorities nearly nine months after the operation to seize the city began.

The level of bloodshed and violence involved in taking these final yards has already made “liberation” and “destruction” dangerously synonymous.

“We are killing between 30 and 40 of the Daesh [ISIS] a day, but they are still continuing to resist us and fight on as a co-ordinated group, with some very experienced foreign commanders among them,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Ali Hussein, whose Najaf battalion of Iraq’s CTS counterterrorism service has been among those spearheading the battle in the Old City.

“They know they are going to die, and they wish to. Put that desire for death in an environment of twisting alleys in the Old City, add a few thousand civilians used as human shields, and you create a complex military problem.”

The operation to capture the Old City from ISIS began on June 18 and should have concluded in time to allow Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, to make a formal declaration of victory in Mosul and initiate celebrations to coincide with those at the end of Ramadan on June 24.

Then, 48 hours ahead of this date, ISIS blew up the al-Nuri mosque, the symbolic centrepiece of the battle, where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had announced ISIS caliphate in July 2014.

Now, amid a scene of urban destruction that resembles the battlefields of Grozny and Aleppo, the fight drags on in a slice of labyrinthine alleys and cellars abutting the west bank of the River Tigris.

The diehard fanatics include a core group of seasoned foreign fighters, local Iraqis, and ISIS wives who in recent days have made regular attacks on advancing Iraqi troops, wearing explosive belts and disguising themselves among escaping civilians, only to detonate the moment they see soldiers.

“This tactic is happening much more than before,” Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein said, showing a video on a mobile phone that one of his men had taken three days ago in which the dust-covered bodies of four female ISIS suicide bombers, apparently killed by an airstrike, lay in a ruined Old City basement.

“There have been more than a dozen attacks in the last week, including six by women, and it makes it very difficult to rescue civilians when you expect every woman may blow herself up.”

Already infamous for their death-charged strategy, few ISIS fighters making their last stand here have any desire to surrender.

Clambering across the banks of rubble, debris and war wreckage with CTS troops, along the front line between the Grand al-Nuri mosque and the Tigris, every dead ISIS fighter I saw was wearing full chest webbing and had been killed fighting to the end, their bodies lying sprawled among spent bullet casings.

One dead fighter was Asiatic, and photographs of an infant child had been taken from his kit and laid on his blood-crusted chest.

“But they aren’t all set on martyrdom,” one of the soldiers smiled, pointing to a pile of shaved beards and tangled hair that lay elsewhere among the ruins, as the bullwhip crack of sniper and machinegun fire sounded overhead and the concussion of a nearby double airstrike bounced across us.

“The foreigners will fight to the last but some of the Iraqi Daesh get rid of their beards and try to disguise themselves among the escaping civilians.”

Though the authorities have refused to disclose official figures, casualties have been extremely high among the Iraqi units involved in this final assault. They are already exhausted and depleted by an operation whose duration has now far exceeded the five-month battle of Stalingrad.

One complex ISIS ambush in the Old City on June 22, involving two waves of female suicide attackers hidden among escaping civilians, combined with assault teams, snipers and mortar fire, caused 140 casualties among Iraqi troops in the space of a few hours, according to a military doctor who treated the wounded.

“We ended up having to bring in seven cargo planes to evacuate the casualties down for treatment at Baghdad’s hospitals, but even they were overwhelmed and had to disperse casualties among other hospitals in southern Iraq,” Major Ahmed Hashem Sayeed said.

“I’ve treated the wounded in the battles of Ramadi and Fallujah but Mosul was the worst and the fight in the Old City the worst of all.”

In the confused battle space, co-ordination is breaking down and several casualties have been caused by so-called friendly fire.

Yesterday morning radio chatter from one CTS unit spoke of one soldier killed and two others wounded by mortar fire from an army battalion to their north, while another commander yelled that one of his advance units was being attacked in a building with grenades by assailants that were probably from a flanking Federal Police group.

Between 7,000 and 20,000 civilians, including ISIS families, are still believed to be trapped in the battlefield, the discrepancy in the estimate caused by the intensity of the fighting. They have been existing as troglodytes in underground cellars and basements.

Some of those who have got out described living for the past fortnight on one meal a day of wheat soup, made with dirty well water that had given them worms and diarrhoea.

ISIS families shared their discomfort, and were often the cause of rows.

“Ten days ago Abu Mansur, a leading Chechen commander, came down into our cellar where six Iraqi families were sheltering and asked if some foreign Daesh wives could join us,” explained Um Omar, a 45-year-old woman who escaped yesterday morning, months after she lost her daughter, and was herself badly wounded in an airstrike.

“We didn’t want the Daesh women with us in case they attracted airstrikes so there was an argument. They ended up sheltering in the cellar next door.”

The number of civilian dead in the rubble is unknown, though soldiers speak of finding stinking courtyards and cellars where bombarded survivors have stashed their dead, unable to bury them in the siege conditions.

Scores of injured civilians have emerged over the past few days, many with wounds that have gone untreated and gangrenous in the 45C heat.

“Ninety-five per cent of the civilians we receive who have escaped from the Old City are malnourished and dehydrated,” said a volunteer Australian medic serving with a military clinic on the edge of the battle, who preferred to be known only as “Anthony”.

“The wounded include many with crush injuries from falling rubble, often gangrenous, that will end up with an amputated limb.”

The months of grinding warfare in Mosul have displaced 900,000 people, of whom 700,000 are still homeless, and killed unknown thousands.

The UN predicts that it will cost more than $1 billion to repair the city’s basic infrastructure, in a deeply problematic post-war phase — beset by sectarian tension and vengeance — that will decide whether Iraq’s government can capitalise sufficiently well on its exhausting, bloodsoaked victory to win the war rather than just the battle.

The schisms caused by the conflict already divide Iraqis at a family level as well as among tribes, sects and ethnic groups, and may yet prove too much for the country to bear.

Pointing to the bullet-ridden body of a man in civilian clothes lying in the rubble on the front line east of the al-Nuri mosque, I asked an Iraqi soldier how the man had come to die.

“Oh, he was Daesh and had abandoned his weapon and tried to escape with a group of civilians,” the soldier said matter-of-factly. “But as we let them pass, his own sister denounced him as a member of ISIS. So we shot him then and there.”

Anthony Loyd, thetimes