Battling Islamic State: A Visit to the Mosul Front

The fight against Islamic State in western Mosul is chaotic and brutal, with up to 200,000 civilians still trapped in the IS-held Old Town. DER SPIEGEL visited the front in Iraq to see how the battle is progressing.

A girl walks through the destroyed streets of Mosul.

Jacob Russel

A girl walks through the destroyed streets of Mosul.

May 29, 2017  

Every morning, as soon as the sun comes up, they arrive by the thousands, scurrying out of the protection offered by the ruined buildings or sidling through the shadows in destroyed streets. Some, as though nothing more could happen to them after having escaped the hell of western Mosul, walk indifferently down the middle of the main streets. It is an exodus of the exhausted and distraught from a city that was once Iraq’s second largest — a rich metropolis that has been populated since biblical times.

They set off at night, some of them having been shepherded past roadblocks by corrupt Islamic State fighters but most sneaking through the ruins. Their goal is the Baghdad roundabout, a couple kilometers south of the city center. Everyone in the city knows about this escape route, say those who are fleeing, and that buses are waiting there to bring them to safety.

We are traveling against the current, intent on reaching the part of the city where Islamic State (IS) is fighting its increasingly desperate rearguard battle. The terrorist militia took control of the city in June 2014 as it was expanding its “caliphate,” while Iraqi troops launched efforts to take back IS-controlled territory in October of last year. Now, IS has been pushed back on almost all fronts; and in Mosul, the terrorist group in late May is clinging on to little more than the historic city center on the west bank of the Tigris. According to the United Nations, up to 200,000 people are still trapped in the IS-held core of the city, hunkering down in their cellars and basements. They only risk fleeing once IS pulls back, but even then, many remain out of fear of IS snipers and looters — or because of a lack of alternatives.


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