ISIS Drones Buzz Overhead and Suicide Bombers Lurk as Mosul Slowly Returns to Life
Eastern Mosul is getting back to normal
A driver honks his horn as cars and trucks of all types jostle for position along a two-lane road. It’s not rush hour, but everyone here is caught in a traffic jam typical of cities across the world.
This, however isn’t every other city. This is Mosul’s Gogjali district — and just two months ago the streets were almost empty, the only vehicles being those of the Iraqi Security Forces or civilians moving under white flags.
Bomb damaged and bullet scarred building still line the road through Mosul’s most eastern district, but are now being put to use again as residents try to get their lives back on track after more than two years of Islamic State occupation.
Craters in the road from bombs suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices form choke points on the road, slowing traffic. Where once refugees queued for screening and evacuation market traders now hawk their products as locals wander among the stalls.
It’s been only two weeks since the eastern side of Mosul was freed from Islamic State in late January, and there are still problems. But the city’s eastern districts are returning to a more normal way of life despite the threat from ISIS fighters who have stayed behind.
Those living in Mosul endured two and half years of Islamic State rule after the city, Iraq’s second-largest after Baghdad, fell in June 2014. Over the two years, seven months and five days that militants occupied the city, its residents endured a harsh regime.
The Tigris River, which runs the entire length of the city, now forms the border between the liberated eastern side and the Islamic State-occupied western Mosul. Coalition air strikes have destroyed all of the bridges spanning it.
Although surrounded by Iraqi forces, Islamic State still makes its presence known in the east by launching small riverborne attacks, firing heavy weapons across the river and by flying explosive-laden drones — all of which target Iraqi forces and the civilians living there.
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Cars wait at a road junction in the city’s Al Muthana neighborhood. Around the corner, shots ring out. Civilians look at each other with wary faces and one man ducks behind a building.
Their reaction is understandable. Many have lived through the ISIS occupation of the city and the battle for its liberation. Everyone here just wants to get on with their lives.
The source of shooting is a pickup truck speeding along the main road. The flag of the Popular Mobilization Units flies from the top of the truck. Two men stand on the back of the vehicle firing Kalashnikov rifles in the air — lacking a siren, and in a hurry, they are using their weapons to clear a path through the traffic.
In the back of the pickup, hidden from view, are four injured Iraqi soldiers — all casualties of an ISIS drone strike.
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I ask if they can hear the drones coming. “Sometimes, but often not,” says Mohammed, a captain and company commander in the Hash’d Mosul. In quiet areas, militants have been flying their machines high in the sky to prevent their human targets hearing the telltale sound of electric motors.
The captain and part of his company are manning a checkpoint in Mosul’s Al Arabi neighborhood — a district on the northern end of the city that has the Tigris as one of its boundaries.
His unit, composed of Sunni Mosul residents and part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, fought along side regular Iraqi soldiers of the 9th Armored Division as they cleared their way into the city. The Hash’d Mosul now mixes with regular Iraqi army units along the eastern banks of the Tigris — and bears the brunt of the Islamists’ attacks from the west.
Al Arabi was once one of Mosul’s more expensive areas. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, it housed politicians and Ba’ath Party members. There are people living here, but not many walk the streets, owing to the threat of stray rounds or mortar bombs from Islamic State positions just across the river.
The fighting that took place here is still evident. Some buildings have been flattened and others have burned out. The bodies of three ISIS fighters lie flat on their backs on a dusty road where they died around 15 days ago. “The problem with the [ISIS] bodies is that they may have explosive devices hidden on them,” Mohammed explains. “Luckily, it’s winter so the smell is not that bad.”
Despite everything, the captain sounds optimistic. “Civilians are returning,” he says. “Things are getting better.” He says that many residents stayed during the ISIS occupation, as not all were able to escape.
Mohammed says that the Iraqi government has yet to restore basic services. Mosul, for now, has no power or water. City residents rely on bottled water and generators.
Around the corner on a highway through the city, members of the Iraqi army’s 16th Division man a vehicle checkpoint. The soldiers are under the command of Captain Ali, an officer originally from the Diyala region of Iraq, some 200 miles from Mosul.
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His soldiers, riding in brand-new, U.S.-made armored Humvees, keep watch over the constant flow of traffic moving through their part of the city. “Right now things are very good with few problems,” Ali says. “The drones are the main problem.”
The captain’s unit fought alongside the Iraqi Special Operations Forces on the way into the city, but right now his men are pulling checkpoint duty. Partly to check for stolen vehicles, but also for any ISIS members. They check the identity cards of anyone passing through the checkpoint against a list of known militants.
“We also have [ordnance-disposal] teams at work,” Ali says. “Many of them work in the villages around the city looking for IEDs and disposing of explosives there. ISIS left everything behind when they pulled back.”
As a hidden artillery unit sporadically fires from a nearby neighborhood, two men are hard at work repairing the surface of a soccer pitch. They work away with knives, trimming off excess plastic turf so that it can be fastened to the playing field. The owner, Thamur Aziz, says that the pitch will be ready in 10 days. He’s just waiting on materials coming from Turkey.
“There was no football when ISIS was here,” he says. “They [ISIS] used our office, but not the pitch.” The parts of the plastic grass that have yet to be replaced have been rendered a pale blue-green by two years of exposure to the sun. Three men scale the supports above the pitch to repair the framework which will eventually support a new cover shielding the playing field from the elements.
Thamur stayed in Mosul during the occupation. He wanted to leave, he says, but he couldn’t get out. Like some other residents, he also spent some time in an ISIS jail. His crime was that the militants suspected he was in contact with Shia militias.
“Life is getting back to normal,” Thumar says. As if on cue, two men on a hydraulic platform begin making repairs to a pylon carrying power cables.
“The pitch will look good when it’s finished,” Thumar says. “People like green things here, it makes you feel happy and relaxed.” He says that soccer is a good way to bring people together. “You don’t care about anything because you are playing together as a team.”
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“The problem was ISIS,” Thumar adds. “Now the weight is lifted.” Before ISIS took Mosul, there were tensions between the majority Shia Iraqi Security Forces and the mixed, but Sunni-majority population of Mosul. “People really like the Iraqi army right now.”
Thumar says the last Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki made Iraqi Sunnis feel disenfranchised by the majority-Shia government. The current prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, gets Thumar’s seal of approval.
It’s lunchtime in the Al Zuhour neighborhood. Mosul residents flock to restaurants and shops that surround a roundabout here. Many visit the Sayidati Al Jamila restaurant for kebabs, chicken or rice and beans.
Two days later on Feb. 10, 2017, it’s the target of a suicide bomber. Five people die, including the owner who, reports suggest, tried to stop the bomber from entering the restaurant. His sacrifice saved many lives.
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Outside, under the awning of a shop that has not yet re-opened, Abdula and his friend Farhad sell mobile phones from a small, collapsible table.
The pair got their current stock almost as soon as eastern Mosul was liberated. Which is a savvy idea, considering the Islamic State’s ban on mobile phones. “Many people are buying phones,” they say.
The phones vary. A box with the most basic Nokia made lies on the table alongside newer Apple and Samsung smartphones. Customers crowd around. One well-dressed teenager turns phones over to inspect their condition.
“I was in an ISIS jail for 15 days,” Farhad says. He paid $1,000 to secure his release. His crime was giving some friends the name of a smuggler who he had heard could took people out of the city. The friends got caught — and gave him up. “I was lucky that it was only $1,000,” he says. “Others paid more.”
Unlike Farhad, Abdula didn’t go to jail. But during the Iraqi offensive to retake the city, ISIS detonated a VBIED outside his home, killing his father.
Both Farhad and Abdula say that life is better now, despite the mortars and drones. They do, however, worry about the future. “The Iraqi army is okay now, but later I worry it will be the same as it was before,” Abdula says.
Although life is returning to eastern Mosul, the way ahead is not easy. Its residents worry about their relationships with the Iraqi security forces. And ISIS is still out there, still capable of inflicting terrible pain.
The bombing of the Sayidati Al Jamila Restaurant is not the only incident in the city in mid-February 2017. Several other bombs detonate on the same day, killing at least 10 people and injuring 33. A drone drops an explosive device on people attending a funeral in the Hay Shurta neighborhood, injuring five mourners.