By The Times
Iraqi forces trying to recapture Mosul have been stymied by Islamic State child snipers lying in wait in a “city of tunnels” that are wide enough for cars and extend for miles.
Members of the army’s 9th Division described a nightmarish battle inside Mosul, Isis’s most heavily populated stronghold, as they try to push in from the outskirts.
They took a handful of districts last week but are having difficulty gaining more ground because of repeated counterattacks by small groups of Isis snipers and suicide bombers.
The jihadists strike repeatedly and often at night to grind down the troops’ morale and stamina.
“Some of the tunnels have lavatories and armouries,” Colonel Shaker Ibrahim said. “They have built up stores of rations inside them — they can live in them for weeks on end.
“The tunnels are where their true strength lies. They have tunnels big enough for cars to pass through.”
Inside the city, troops are attempting to progress in tanks, such as those of Colonel Ibrahim’s division, and in armoured car convoys, which can be broken up by suicide bombers, leaving soldiers in the street vulnerable to snipers posted in houses and on rooftops.
The jihadists are forcing civilians to stay put to discourage the use of airstrikes and helicopter gunships against their positions.
By forcing the men to dress in traditional clothes and grow beards, they have made it impossible for the army to distinguish between combatant and civilian.
Those trying to flee have been shot at, particularly if they are carrying bags or suitcases that could be mistaken for bombs. In one incident captured by a film crew, a man stopped his car at the sight of oncoming troops and got out with his hands up. When he was issued with contradictory orders, he ran and was shot dead. It turned out he was an ordinary taxi driver.
Despite the risk of civilian casualties, the Iraqi and US authorities have authorised the use of American Apache helicopters — another reminder of previous battles in jihadist-infested Iraqi cities in recent years. Hundreds of strikes against Isis positions have been authorised, Colonel John Dorrian, the coalition spokesman, said.
The tunnels and trenches have emerged as the distinctive feature of the battle for Mosul. One officer, Captain Maliki, speaking in the suburb of Intasar, said that it was always impossible to know where the enemy was, even after the army had apparently taken a neighbourhood.
“Sometimes you will spend all morning clearing a street and in the afternoon a fighter will come out of a house on that street,” he said. “They can attack from any angle. It is dangerous to go into the city on foot — very dangerous.”
Those experienced in this type of fighting say there is no alternative to going through houses room by room.
One of the army’s own snipers, Ayman Ibrahim from the elite Swat teams known as the Golden Division, claimed that Isis was dependent on child snipers “whose sight was better.”
“The Isis snipers are all children,” he said. “For the Golden Division it is easy, we only go forwards, not back. The snipers are the only things that slow us down, but they take time to find and deal with.
“However, when the troops know there are snipers around they won’t get out of the Hummers and MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected carriers).”
It is hard to assess the accuracy of claims from the battlefield. A separate report claimed that Isis’s core fighters in Mosul were an elite unit of French-speaking jihadists, instructed to stand and die in the defence of the town. Another said that up to 20 civilians close to the front lines accused of passing information to the advancing army had been killed by Isis, which then displayed their bodies on telegraph poles.
However, there has been widespread confirmation of the existence of the tunnel network, which one assessment put at 45 miles long in total.
Colonel Dorrian said that 70 tunnels had been destroyed since the start of the operation to take Mosul.
A French television crew was with a unit of Kurdish peshmerga that discovered a tunnel network under the town of Bashiqa, north of Mosul, when three suicide attackers emerged from it and killed a major-general.
Colonel Ibrahim said that Isis tactics had been developed by a so-called “emir of tunnelling”, whom he identified as a man named Hatem Salman, a Jordanian.
As the army has liberated other parts of Iraq, it has discovered evidence of this tunnelling unit, including jerry-rigged boring machines found near Fallujah and other towns. He said he knew of tunnels five or six metres deep, impervious to ordinary airstrikes.
He appeared to confirm suggestions that a desire to avoid excessive casualties — regarded as militarily impossible in urban street fighting — was leading to a less than thorough clear-up operation.
The US is considering proposals to send in special forces to strengthen the Iraqi troops both in numbers and in urban warfare knowhow. “We can’t send our men into the tunnels, they are too scared,” Colonel Ibrahim said. “Usually we just drop a grenade down, but that has limited range.”
As the advance inside Mosul stalls, the ground force alliance of Iraqi army units, special forces, Kurds and Shia and local Sunni militias continues to encircle the city.
South of Mosul, the Iraqi joint operations command said troops were approaching the remains of the Assyrian city of Nimrud. The site, which dates to 1300BC, was seized two years ago.
Isis released videos in February and March last year of its men attacking the ancient city, smashing up monuments, including its famous winged bull gates, with sledgehammers. They then moved on to a more methodical destruction, bulldozing and dynamiting key buildings.
By Gareth Browne, in Mosul and Richard Spencer in Beirut