Battle for Mosul: The terrifying final push against Islamic State
MOSUL, Iraq - Soldiers advance through the rubble-filled alleyways of Mosul's Old City, crowd around a rugged hole smashed through a wall, as battered buildings reverberate with heavy gunfire.
It echoes across this central area of Mosul, less than one square kilometre across, into which Islamic State group (IS) militants have now been compressed.
During the minutes when the guns fall silent, the thin buzz of an army drone checking IS positions whirs overhead.
As the Iraqi Army on Saturday looked set to declare full victory over the city, the last desperate moments of battle seemed to be some of the most extreme of what has been a protracted and bloody battle.
"IS are just 21 metres away," a young soldier says cheerfully. He highlights that terrifying proximity with a glowing red arrow on a map on his phone, which details the narrow alleyways of the Old City, through which ground advances are now being made.
In the 46-degree midday heat, some soldiers have discarded their shirts, wearing only vests. One by one they duck down to clamber through the hole.
An explosion hits nearby. The smashed hole becomes a fulcrum of chaos, as a journalist pushes outwards through soldiers going in the other direction. His eyes are wide with terror beneath a lopsided helmet.
Temperatures, tempers running high
"Don't go out there, it is so dangerous," he mutters wildly. The back of his trousers are soaked in blood. At the end of the alleyway, his security guy yanks down the journalist's trousers, revealing a stream of crimson running from a deep shrapnel wound to the back of his thigh, and starts bandaging it.
Grim-faced soldiers climb back through the hole. Some have bloodied arms and legs from smaller shrapnel wounds from the same grenade that injured the journalist, whose treatment is now blocking the way back out.
Temperatures and tempers are running high. Two lieutenants stand beside the hole arguing, one swiping at the blood tickling down his arm. He pauses the argument to irritably ask if anyone has a bandage. Someone hands him a dirty rag.
A group of soldiers still waiting to advance light cigarettes and crack jokes. The young man with the phone map says he dreams of going to England one day. "Iraq no good," he says, smiling and gesturing around him at the obliterated ruins of Mosul's Old City.
This is the southwestern frontline in the battle for the Old City, where the elite Emergency Response Division (ERD) have been drafted back in to make fresh advances from the ruins of the Bab Al-Tob souk to a residential district around the Al-Khuzam mosque.
Incoming IS sniper-fire intensifies.
A 19-year-old soldier pushes back through the hole. His face contorted in an expression of shock, he holds out his gun to show where an IS sniper bullet shattered part of the weapon. His extends a wrist, limp from the impact of the bullet jolting through the weapon. Another, laughing, says an IS bullet just skimmed his belt. More grenade explosions come from the direction where soldiers are advancing and several emerge hastily back out through the smashed hole.
Back to the frontline, again
"Back, back. Quick. It's very dangerous here," instructs Ahmed, a soldier with ERD's media department, ushering two journalists back down the labyrinthine alleyways, where small groups of dejected-looking soldiers crouch in any patch of shade they can find.
There is no shortage of bravery amongst the Iraqi forces but, amidst the rubble of these dangerous streets, the bravado and extraordinary good nature with which many soldiers here have faced the world's most feared enemy, IS, is fading.
With the battle for Mosul now in its 10th month, even Iraq's most elite fighters are exhausted.
We finished all our designated areas of West Mosul but now we've been called back to the frontline to help. Again
- Mohammed, soldier
"We shouldn’t even be here," said ERD soldier Mohammed. "We finished all our designated areas of West Mosul, but now we've been called back to the frontline to help. Again."
A fortnight ago, ERD troops were drafted in to help Iraqi Army units struggling to clear Mosul's Al-Shifaa district, the last remaining pocket of IS resistance outside the Old City. At the start of this week, the call came again.
"An army chief phoned us in the middle of the night, congratulating ERD on what a great job we'd done in Mosul, and calling us heroes," he said. "Then he ordered us to go to this frontline to support the Federal Police. We came here immediately."
In the first four days of this month, IS-affiliated media outlet Amaq released a series videos from Mosul, showing members of the Federal Police killed in recent fighting - nine in one video, three in another, two in another, with one shot by an IS sniper in a fourth video.
Of all the Iraqi forces fighting IS in Mosul, the Federal Police have the most limited training and capacity, usually taking the supporting role of holding new frontline positions gained by special forces.
But ERD commanders complained months ago about the Federal Police's frequent inability to hold such advanced positions. "Every day we make an advance and at night hand it over to the Federal Police and say please, please don't lose it; but often, by the morning, they've lost some ground," ERD captain Abbas told MEE in March.
Federal Policemen ... sprawl on the floors in their underwear, sweating, and trying to find even momentary respite from the relentless heat
The haphazard route back from the frontline is through a network of holes smashed through houses, some barely big enough for the larger soldiers to climb through.
In the dark and sweltering interiors of these former homes, Federal Policemen are waiting for advances to finish before they take up their overnight defence positions, sprawl on the floors in their underwear, sweating, and trying to find even momentary respite from the relentless heat. Young soldiers carry bags of oranges and cartons of cooked food through the rooms towards the frontline.
As the soldiers emerge out into the painfully bright sunshine of the souk - all but demolished by air strikes - and climb over rubble that stinks of excrement and decaying flesh, a helicopter wheels overhead, targeting IS positions just 400 meters away with a pair of missiles. The impact is massive.
The final assault
Shrapnel and detritus fly through the air, scattering over military positions around which most forces are sheltering from the sun and stray incoming fire beneath blown-out shopfronts. But those walking in the open are vulnerable. Shrapnel slices into one Federal Policeman’s head and fells an ERD soldier with a deep thigh wound.
Ambulances drive swiftly through the dust to collect the injured. Here, the wounded are, a least, close to medical treatment. From the most advanced frontline positions deep inside the Old City, it takes soldiers an average of one hour to traverse one kilometre of difficult terrain - narrow streets piled with rubble - on foot, according German NGO medic Thomas.
Serious trauma cases and life-threatening injuries need medical attention within 15 minutes. The odds are not good for those injured on the front lines furthest inside the Old City.
Unperturbed by the air strike, a group of ERD fighters take a break inside a two-walled building, oddly left in perfect condition inside the demolished souk, eating lunch before their advance.
"There are dead IS everywhere. We've killed a lot," said soldier Malik, gesturing around the destroyed neighbourhood with a wide sweep of the hand.
We're advancing steadily, and, inshallah, it will not take us much longer. We have God's power with us
- Thaet, soldier
"And now they are throwing down their weapons and trying to come out with fleeing civilians, but they're all going to get arrested."
He said advancing ERD troops are increasingly finding discarded IS weapons - mostly M16s and AK47s - lying on the ground where they have been abandoned.
"The biggest problem we're facing here are the snipers and IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. There are IEDs absolutely everywhere, and they're slowing us down," soldier Theat, 29, said. "But we're advancing steadily, and, inshallah, it will not take us much longer. We have God's power with us."