Surviving on the front line in Mosul

MOSUL: Mohammed Fathi sat calmly on a plastic chair, twiddling his prayer beads as machine gun fire erupted from a neighbour’s house, incoming bullets crackled overhead and helicopters strafed targets nearby in western Mosul.
The 70-year-old grandfather of 10 looked relieved. The day before, death had come much closer.
He described how IS fighters had used the top floor of his home to fire sniper rifles and BKC machine guns at advancing Iraqi forces, while Fathi’s family and others displaced by the violence cowered downstairs.
If the militants had held out a few minutes longer, an air raid would have brought the building down on top of them. “Thank God, they retreated from here and troops arrived to find just us.
“One of the soldiers told us they were five minutes away from calling in an air strike because of the resistance coming from our house,” he said.
Fathi, wearing a red and white headdress, hobbled around his home pointing at damage the IS fighters had done to his property — a children’s cupboard smashed up to use as barricades and to rest rifles on, a basket upturned to stand on while they fired at the enemy.
The fighters, some of whom spoke Russian, left their posts in the upstairs bedrooms and retreated through the next-door house via holes they had knocked through the walls, Fathi said.
“As the soldiers arrived, we weren’t sure if Daesh (IS) were still there. My son went up to check, and they’d gone.”
The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) entered the home around sunset on Monday, and on Tuesday were stationed outside in armoured vehicles, or firing from adjacent buildings at IS positions along the shifting front line.
Fighting to drive IS from western Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq, has involved close-quarter street battles, with Iraqi forces advancing block by block as they approach the most densely populated parts of the city.
Fathi’s home is one of many that IS fighters have used as battle positions as they withdraw towards the city centre, taking cover among the 750,000 civilians in western Mosul.
US-backed Iraqi forces recaptured eastern Mosul in January, and attacked districts west of the river Tigris on February 19. Advances have sometimes slowed to try to avoid civilian casualties, while IS has used suicide car bombs and snipers.
“Daesh are retreating house by house, and they’re also using tunnels they’ve dug to escape,” said CTS Corporal Marwan Hashem, stationed in the house next door to Fathi.
“They take up rooftop positions on homes to shoot.” — Reuters