MOSUL: The rubble of a bridge blown up by IS in Mosul to block advancing Iraqi forces has become a lifeline for civilians as more and more of the northern city breaks loose from the grip of the ultra-hardline militants.
Men and women, children and the elderly scramble down the banks of the Khosr River, a tributary of the Tigris some 30 metres wide and a metre deep which counter-terrorism forces crossed last week in a nighttime raid.
Lumbering over ladders and pipes, civilians crawl onto the span of the bridge, which has collapsed into the murky water, and shimmy up the opposite bank along a dirt path.
Those escaping east to Zuhur district drag suitcases along with strollers and wheelchairs. Those returning west to Muthanna carry sacks of rice, potatoes and onions, cartons of eggs and packs of baby diapers. The journey in either direction is usually several kilometres.
“Now there are people entering and people leaving,” Major General Sami al Aridi said this week after touring both sides of the river on foot.
“The ones who left are returning, and those who are leaving now are coming from ... neighbourhoods where there are currently clashes.”
He said he expected the latest evacuees to return in a day or two as Iraqi forces pushed further west.
The United Nations had warned that the US-backed campaign to kick IS out of Mosul, their largest urban stronghold in Iraq or Syria, could displace up to 1.5 million people.
But with much of the eastern half of the city now under government control, most residents have stayed in their homes or moved in temporarily with relatives in other neighbourhoods.
That has complicated the task of the military, which must fight among civilians in built-up areas against an enemy that has targeted non-combatants and hidden among them.
The offensive, involving a 100,000-strong ground force of Iraqi troops, members of the autonomous Kurdish security forces and militiamen, is the most complex battle in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.
When it launched the offensive in October, the government hoped to have retaken the city by the end of 2016 but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said in December it could now take another three months to drive the militants out.
Fawaz, a 46-year-old schoolteacher going back across the ruptured bridge to his family’s home in Muthanna on Monday, held a jerry can filled with fuel in one hand and a bag of fresh food in the other.
“We spent two months without food, just what we had stored up,” he said, describing the harsh conditions that many residents faced after the Mosul campaign began in mid-October. Fawaz said he lost some 30 kg in that period. — Reuters