Iraqi Snipers Combat Isis In Narrow Mosul Streets
Perched atop wrecked apartment blocks in west Mosul, Iraqi police snipers are just a few hundred meters from Islamic State (ISIS) militants around the al Nuri Mosque, where militant leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate nearly three years ago.
Through holes knocked in its concrete walls, troops have a clear view of al Nuri's crooked, brown minaret and the ISIS black flag on its white tip, a hugely symbolic target in the battle to recapture Mosul, now in its sixth month.
Al Nuri may be tantalizingly close - troops can hear its morning prayers at times - but the Mosul battle has hit complex military and political terrain as fighting enters the packed Old City and risks an increase in civilian casualties, forcing Iraqi and coalition forces to reconsider tactics.
Eyewitnesses from western Mosul's Jadida district and Iraqi officials this week said a coalition air strike a week ago on ISIS targets may have collapsed residential homes, where rescue officials say as many as 200 people were buried in the rubble.
Conflicting accounts are emerging. The U.S.-led coalition acknowledged it carried out a strike and is investigating. But the incident opens questions about the battle's next phase and what happens after Mosul, where Iraq's Shia-led government is wary of alienating the city's mostly Sunni population.
Already the battle around the Old City has slowed, forcing Iraqi forces and coalition allies to rethink how to push through narrow alleyways and homes, where fleeing residents say they are used by militants as cover or deliberate collateral damage.
Recent clashes around the Old City have been described by troops as tough, street-by-street fighting in wrecked buildings, where narrow alleys are often cleared by grenades. Berms block streets to the Old City and barricades are manned by tank crews and troops with rocket launchers to stop suicide attackers.
Two suicide bombers in an armored bulldozer ploughed through barricades two weeks ago, detonating their huge explosive-laden vehicle to destroy Humvee and Abrams tanks at one rapid response brigade post.
"Last night we were attacked for about an hour after the enemy attempted to infiltrate us from these Humvees ahead. We targeted and killed two of them and they escaped," one sniper, Yasser, said, describing a more recent attack.
Federal police and Iraqi army sources also say initial plans are for the military to seal off the Old City and try to evacuate civilians to allow U.S.-trained counter-terrorism special forces to take a larger role in carrying out incursions.
Bringing the 9th Army division in from the north would also push ISIS onto two fronts and draw fighters from the Old City, where commanders worry about civilian casualties undermining any post-Mosul security and worsening the kind of sectarian tensions that helped ISIS thrive before.