Battle for Mosul: Iraqi troops prowl ruins for IS militants

#InsideIraq

Soldiers hunt down Islamic State stragglers, more than a week after prime minister declared victory in the shattered city

An Iraqi soldier walks through the devastated Old City area of Mosul (Reuters)
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Wednesday 19 July 2017 8:07 UTC
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MOSUL, Iraq - On the eastern banks of the River Tigris, a soldier stands on an abandoned children's slide scanning the river with binoculars for any suspicious movement.

In this sleepy rural area, where east Mosul's city dwellings give way to farms and fields of sunflowers, military units have been hunting down rogue Islamic State (IS) members, hiding out in undergrowth or family homes.

'Daesh elements have slipped out of Mosul's Old City at night, using inflated tyre inner-tubes to drift downstream'

- Saad Haikmat, army colonel

"Some Daesh elements have slipped out of Mosul's Old City at night, using inflated tyre inner-tubes to drift downstream on the current until they reached this shallower point," Iraqi army colonel Saad Haikmat told MEE. His unit's mission is to hunt former IS members in the southern districts of east Mosul.

"They tried to swim across here because there are a lot of trees where they can hide. They only do this at night, using the darkness to avoid detection, but we have still killed some of them."

The Iraqi armed forces celebrated on 9 July their victory over IS after eight months of urban warfare, bringing an end to three years of militant rule in the city, although operations to clear the Old City of hidden IS militants have continued.

The Iraqi military said tens of IS militants had been killed attempting to escape by swimming across the River Tigris that bisects the city.

IS militants trying to escape

Soldiers marched across the platform of a nearby pumping system that carries water from the Tigris to residential districts on the eastern bank.

The platform stretches halfway across the river and soldiers think fleeing IS militants used its foundations to cross the river relatively easily.

This was also one of the final southernmost points where they could cross. Another mile downstream, the way is blocked by a military-operated pontoon bridge sitting low in the water.



Iraqi armed forces search rural areas south of east Mosul (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Upstream, a few militants - some carrying apparatus for carrying out suicide bombings - have tried to swim directly across the river from the Old City to east Mosul in recent weeks.

But most of these militants were identified by American drones or fixed camera systems overlooking the river, then shot dead by soldiers on a well-manned central Mosul frontline running along the eastern banks of the river, according to Iraqi army major general Jabar Jibouri.

"We are now co-ordinating and reinforcing our positions all along the riverbank to ensure there are no weak points," said Jibouri, scanning the river from the pumping system platform.

"We have intelligence information that some Daesh have crossed the river and are now hiding out here in these southern parts of east Mosul."

Ordering boat patrols in any small vessels the army could find, he instructed senior personnel to navigate the riverbanks, scouring orchards and checking outhouses for rogue militants who, he warned, could even be hiding out in thick foliage.

"Get the boat units down here right now," he ordered, insisting that all outlying districts must be checked, then rechecked.

As well as patrolling the banks of the River Tigris looking for hidden IS militants who have fled fighting in the last pockets of resistance in the Old City, Jibouri's forces combed residential areas, carrying out daily raids, as they tried to track down former IS militants.



Jabar Jibouri orders forces to comb the banks of the River Tigris, looking for IS militants (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Posing as civilians

Usually following tip-offs from local people about former IS members now hoping to evade detection by posing as ordinary civilians, arrests are being made every day.

Near the river, in a former school turned into a makeshift military headquarter, seven IS suspects were seated on the floor of a small room. Most cowered miserably, covering their heads with their hands but one older man in his 60s raised his hand, remonstrating with his captors and insisting he had never been with IS.

"I'm not Daesh. My son was with Daesh but he ran away to Turkey 11 months ago. And I've never been with Daesh," he entreated.

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Jibouri peered suspiciously down at him. "In that case, you need to give us your son's details. We will pass it to the US so they can find your son in Turkey," he said.

"And we will check your name on our computer to see whether you were with Daesh. If you weren't, we'll release you, but if you were with Daesh, we'll arrest you."

Haikmat told the general that a witness was on his way to the former school to testify that the old man had been with IS.

'We have captured many thousands of Daesh since the end of military operations in east Mosul'

- Jabar Jibouri, Iraqi major general 

"We've got proof that these guys are Daesh because people have reported them, mostly their own families," he said.

For months, Iraqi armed forces have been arresting IS suspects on a daily basis. The unit Haikmat heads makes between six and 20 arrests on most days.

"We have captured many thousands of Daesh since the end of military operations in east Mosul. Some are sent to Baghdad but most are kept in prisons near here, in [the towns of] Qayyara and Bartella, awaiting trial," Jibouri told MEE.

Human rights concerns

Concerns have been raised however regarding prisoner welfare and access to legal advice at these facilities.

In March this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a scathing report about conditions at several facilities near Mosul, saying at least 1,269 detainees were being held in horrendous conditions in overcrowded makeshift prisons.



Two men are taken prisoner by Iraqi forces (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Limited access to medical care appeared to have resulted in the death of four prisoners and several leg amputations, the report said.

A few key improvements to sanitation, and food and water supplies have since been made by local authorities and international organisations, according to HRW Iraq researcher Belkis Wille.

"However, the two big problems that remain are immense overcrowding, a situation which has only worsened over the last months, as well as the fact that the buildings being used as prisons are entirely unfit for that purpose," she told MEE.

"And thus conditions remain extremely dire for the prisoners being held in the area."

Family tip-offs

In the former school's courtyard, two teenagers - one aged 18, the other 19 - their hands tied behind their backs with cable ties, knelt on the ground facing the wall, armed soldiers standing guard on either side of them.

"These two were definitely with Daesh. They have already confessed that they underwent three months of training," says Haikmat.

"We arrested them this morning, after their family members had informed on them."



Soldiers stand guard on riverside positions on the Tigris (MEE/Tom Westcott)

Daily tip-offs regarding suspects usually come from close family members or neighbours, who have now facilitated many arrests.

Some former IS militants have been in hiding in family homes in east Mosul for months, others have returned home recently, either after crossing the river from West Mosul or appearing from other, unknown hiding places.

Relationship-building

Jibouri put down the increase in reports being made against former IS militants to improved relationships between the Iraqi armed forces and local people, who have facilitated many recent arrests.

'Now we are working very hard to make good relationships and establish bridges between the people and the security forces'

- Jabar Jibouri, Iraqi major general

"In my view, one of the main reasons why Daesh took control of Mosul was because there was a bad relationship between security forces and local people."

"Now we are working very hard to make good relationships and establish bridges between the people and the security forces," he said.

Tasked by the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, with securing post-liberation Mosul, Jibouri is leading relationship-building efforts.

From his hilltop east Mosul headquarters, he receives a steady stream of local people who wait outside the gates to put their cases before him.

Some are there to inform on former IS members but most are looking for lost relatives or asking for help getting medical access for relatives, especially children, injured during months of fighting in Mosul.

"Already the mood of people here has changed. They reject Daesh fighters and refuse to give them a safe haven. Of course, we're not talking about all people in Mosul but the majority," Jibouri said.

"And, if relationships continue to improve, there will be no safe haven for Daesh anywhere in Mosul."