At day break on Monday morning Iraqi soldiers gathered on a quiet suburban street in the east of the city of Mosul, laughing and joking as they prepared to go into battle with Islamic State fighters. Morale was high, even as the militants on the other side of the front line signaled that they too were awake by sending a volley of mortars towards the waiting line of vehicles.
This was the beginning of an operation to wrest control of the last few neighbourhoods in eastern Mosul under ISIS control. “God willing we will reach the river today,” said Staff Colonel Muhanad Saad, the Commander of Iraq’s Counter Terror Service (CTS) 1st battalion, as he readied his men for the charge. A large man with a drooping mustache and lopsided gait, Muhanad described how his men surprised ISIS by retaking the neighborhood of al-Muthana on Jan. 6 under the cover of darkness.
Residents awoke to find they were no longer subjects of the Islamic State, whose capture of Iraq's second city in 2014 underscored the insurgency's ambition of creating a "caliphate" across Iraq and Syria. The militants imposed extreme regulations on Mosul's diverse population, and punished dissenters with torture and executions.
On Wednesday, elite Iraqi troops announced the recapture of the eastern half of the city from ISIS. Staff General Talib al-Sheghati told reporters that the "important lines and important areas are finished," in the city’s eastern side, while some fighting continued on the northern front.
The announcement was the clearest sign yet that Iraqi forces have regained momentum in this battle. In the first months of the offensive, which began on October 17, the military suffered high casualties from wave upon wave of suicide car bombers. Late last year the U.S.-led coalition bombed the bridges crossing the Tigris river to halt ISIS lines of resupply, and the number of car bombs decreased dramatically. After a pause in operations at the end of December, and with the support of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and coalition advisors, Iraqi forces have now plowed through to break the remaining enemy hold in the east.
In the west of the city where the next part of the battle will take place, food is scarce and hundreds of thousands of besieged residents are forced to dig wells and drink unclean water, resulting in widespread sickness. Western Mosul is now surrounded on all sides by an array of Iraqi forces, meaning that ISIS fighters have few ways to escape and will fight to the death. Newly-escaped families said the militants are shooting at those who attempt to clamber over the broken bridges to reach safety on the eastern side.
Most of Mosul's estimated 1 million residents have stayed in their homes or are moving between districts as the frontlines shift. So far, 148,000 have fled to nearby camps in the south and east and 16,500 people have returned home to newly liberated areas on the eastern bank such as al-Qadasiyah and al-Zuhour that are still in the line of fire. Iraqi forces are taking care not to harm civilians, but stray bullets and incoming ISIS mortars are resulting in dozens of civilian casualties and injuries daily.
“Since the liberation of our neighborhoods a lot of our people are dying,” said a doctor who preferred to withhold his name and was working in a make-shift trauma clinic in the city's al-Zuhour district. “Anything that can inflict damage [ISIS] are sending over.”
He fears that the violence will not end with the recapture of Mosul. "I think [the fighters] have shaved their beards and are still hidden among us and may make trouble in the future using silent weapons," he said, "I know they are still here in the streets."
As the sun rose over the tree lined streets, First Lieutenant Qais Husan, also of the 1st Battalion, stepped into his black humvee; its windows still bearing the scars previous battles. A native of Baghdad with a wife at home expecting their first child, he kept his eyes focused on the streets ahead and talked continually into his radio set. Above him, the soldier manning the gunner turret swiveled and began firing into a side street.
The bulldozer drove ahead to block off the streets to potential suicide car bombers as Qais pointed at a building to the right and explained that one of their snipers was already positioned there. As the firing died down, people began to emerge from their homes. A child looked out of a blown out window. From inside one house came the sound of women ululating. Smoke filled the sky from houses set alight by ISIS during their retreat that morning. Further down the street the soldiers spotted an ISIS drone thought to be armed with a grenade ready to drop. Women and children gathered inside their darkened kitchens as they waited for the threat to pass.
As the Iraqi troops rolled forward, Saad, 26 a language school instructor came out of his home. He was grinning ear to ear and still sporting a large beard which all men were forced to grow under Isis control. “I’ve never felt this way before – I feel like it’s my birthday,” he said at the sight of the Iraqi convoy. “Last night I heard missiles, bullets and terrible sound like someone was fighting next door and the kids were crying.” Around 8.30am that morning his family were still cowering inside when they heard the sound of military vehicles. “When we saw the vehicles at the end of our street we jumped up and down and hugged each other, crying.”
In Andalous district on Monday, soldiers continued to patrol the streets and check homes for hidden explosives. Then, word came through on the radio that an ISIS car bomber was speeding towards them. In the final seconds before the explosions, soldiers tried to kick down the door of a nearby house for cover. The bomber made it through a line of parked civilian cars and detonated his explosives 100 meters away from Colonel Muhanad. The earth shook and the windowpanes shattered.
Two humvees were partially destroyed by the explosion and the car left a giant crater in the street. No soldiers were killed but the driver of one humvee was injured. In the aftermath, parts of the bomber's head could still be seen in the wreckage of the car.
By the middle of Tuesday afternoon, Colonel Muhanad’s men had punched through ISIS lines, capturing five more neighborhoods. The Tigris river could be seen as they hoisted the Iraqi flag on the minaret of Mosul’s Great Mosque on the eastern bank. Across it lay the the densely-populated west of the city, where the battle for Mosul will be settled.