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The Battle for Mosul Stalls: 'We Are Fighting the Devil Himself'

By Martin Chulov

5 December 2016

Heaving on a huge, scorched metal door and covered in engine oil, Sgt Hussein Mahmoud was deep into a morning’s work. Twisted hulks of wrecked army vehicles sat incongruously in the coarse dust that was kicked up by still-moving trucks as they crept around Mosul’s urban fringe.

Two other soldiers with industrial wrenches joined in, trying in vain to dislodge the door from its hinges. “We need it for humvees that still work,” said one of them. “We’re under pressure to provide them with parts.”

Impromptu salvage yards have appeared all around the Gogali neighbourhood in Mosul’s outer east, the immediate hinterland of the war with Islamic State and the most visible reminder of how destructive, difficult – and long – this fight is likely to be.

The startling progress of the first few weeks of the campaign to take Iraq’s second city, the terror group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, has given way to a numbing reality: Isis will not surrender Mosul, and Iraq’s battered military will struggle to take it.

Since Iraqi forces entered Gogali, a light industrial neighbourhood, in mid-November, the advance has slowed. “When we started, we were talking weeks,” said Hussein. “Now, we hope it will be by early in the new year. But these guys are not cowards. They kill as easy as they breathe.”

Forces deployed beyond nominal frontlines, marked by heaped piles of dirt, are around five miles from the Nour mosque, where the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself the leader of a caliphate nearly 30 months ago. But every street and sector towards the mosque – a highly symbolic target of the fight – is claiming an increasing toll in blood and treasure.

Car bombs – of the type that ravaged the dozens of humvees in the makeshift wrecking yards – continue to take a withering toll on the US-supplied vehicles, which form the staple of the Iraqi military’s armour.

The toll they are taking on morale is more difficult to gauge. Iraqi troops stationed in Gogali and the roads leading to it insist they will win the war, no matter how long it takes. Some however concede that they could still be fighting in Mosul’s tunnels and alleyways as late as next summer.

“We’ve heard they have dug tunnels and sent boys in suicide vests,” said Cpl Mohammed Tawfiq. “Stopping them is not what we have trained for.”

A slow, grinding fight is not the outcome that Iraq’s political leaders were hoping for at such a critical juncture in the country’s modern history. “They were expecting this to be over in weeks,” said Major Saeed Ali, manning a checkpoint further south of the city, not far from where a lethal clash with up to 50 members of Isis took place in an empty village a week earlier. “Well, they are welcome to come here and try.”

Iraq has billed the fight for Mosul as a nation-building step after more than 13 years of instability: first an invasion that ousted the Sunni-led ruling class, then a sectarian war that pitched the two rival sects of Islam against each other for more than three years, the rise of the earlier incarnations of Isis and the mobilisation of large numbers of primarily Shia militias, who rival the national military as a power base and who this week were legitimised as a state body by the Iraqi parliament.

The Shia militias are not directly involved in the fight to recapture Mosul, their role being confined to taking up blocking positions to the west of the city. Shia iconography is on ready display in the city though, flying from the back of Iraqi trucks and on top of their outposts. The flags jar among some members of the city’s Sunni population, who believe they frame the war in sectarian, not nationalistic terms.

“We expected it,” said Subhi Jabour, a Mosul local waiting for an aid delivery in Gogali last week. “But to be honest, they have not been as bad as we thought they would be. As long as they free us, then leave us alone, we will be happy.”

Smoke from airstrikes billowed from the city in the distance. The east bank of the Tigris river, which splits the city, is the only area in which Iraqi forces are operating and was predicted to be the easier of the two halves to take. As Iraqi forces eventually near the river, there is a growing likelihood that Isis will blow the last of the five bridges flanking it – US airstrikes have disabled the other four – making a push to the west highly difficult and raising the spectre of the Shias on the western outskirts playing more of a direct role after all.

“Look at their trucks,” said Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, a community elder, as he sat by the main road leading into the city. “They were all given to them by the Americans, and not one of them hasn’t been hit by a rocket. All of their windows have been hit by snipers. They look like they have been fighting for five years. It is closer to two months.”

Across from him, a mechanic tinkered under the bonnet of a hummvees that had pulled into a newly reopened workshop. Someone else tended to a flat tyre. Further out of the city, nine black and obliterated vehicles were on display outside a truck stop. An army technician wandered through them looking for things to salvage. “There’s not much,” he said. “Two people died in this one, and we had three martyrs in that,” he added, pointing to almost unrecognisable wreckage.

Two senior officers stood nearby, in immaculately pressed uniforms. “Don’t take too many pictures of the damage,” one of them asked. “We would prefer people didn’t see that.”

Iraqi officials have refused to provide numbers of combat casualties and are uncomfortable with anything that could be seen to give Isis a boost, or to show the military’s losses. “We will get there eventually, in our own way,” said Maj Rafid Ismael, an Iraqi infantry officer in the nearby city of Irbil. “Don’t forget, we are fighting the devil himself.”

Additional reporting by Salem Rizk