The operation to recapture the key northern Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS’s control is ongoing since last October. The coalition formed by Iraqi, Kurdish peshmerga troops and Shia militias with the support of US air strikes captured the eastern side of Mosul in January, completing the fist phase in the military offensive to retake the second largest city of Iraq from ISIS. This February the Iraqi forces launched a new offensive on the districts west of the Tigris river. Since the new push on western Mosul, government forces have recaptured the airport and a military base, both strategic positions. Moreover, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) confirmed on March 5 that the Federal Police and Rapid Response Division forces were attacking the Al-Dindan and Al-Dawasa neighbourhoods, while Counterterrorism Service forces were attacking the Al-Sumood and Tal al-Ruman neighbourhoods. It is believed 750,000 people are still living in western Mosul districts under ISIS control. Despite the first achievements in the battle to take back west Mosul, the narrow and winding densely populated streets present a more challenging situation than the east side.
Lt. Gen. Raid Shakir Jaudat said to the media that “ISIS militants were increasingly cut off from each other and that their leaders were fleeing the remaining pockets of militant control.” Despite these statements, the resistance is expected to be fierce since ISIS fighters have no where escape. During the first phase in eastern Mosul, suicide bombers, snipers and mortars normally attacked Iraqi forces as ISIS militants retreated, now ISIS fighters have nowhere to retreat to. For instance, after US strikes attacked a mosque in the northwest district of Mosul, allegedly killing seven high ranking jihadist commanders on Friday, the Islamic State launched a massive counter-offensive in residential neighbourhoods on Saturday. The counter-offensive was repelled after ISIS fighters were unable to hold control of several areas, however there is an increase of suicide car bombers, snipers, booby traps, and militant fighters trying to hide among families fleeing the areas retaken by government forces. In addition ISIS fighters, who still control the largest part of western Mosul have regularly bombarded the eastern side with mortars and rockets, in an intent to hold off the advancement of Iraqi soldiers. These desperate and cruel attacks are a clear symptom of near defeat but they also imply a great danger of large civilian casualties and material destruction.
On top of the complex strategic position of Mosul’s streets and ISIS asymmetrical warfare tactics, the coalition offensive is confronting the use of chemical weapons. Last week twelve people were treated for suspected exposure to a blistering chemical agent. Injuries were apparently caused by three separate attacks with rockets carrying gas, dropped on east Mosul over the past week. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had previously reported the use of mustard gas by ISIS against the Kurdish peshmerga forces in 2015. Although the most of the victims are still caused by conventional weapons, the confirmation of chemical stock piles ready to use in the major urban ISIS stronghold in Iraq is extremely disturbing. As government forces will approach the western old-city districts, the fighting is expected to get tougher and the likelihood of chemical attacks higher.
On the other hand the humanitarian situation is in dire straits with a constant flow of civilians fleeing the city. As battles intensify, the number of refugees has significantly escalated in recent days as the Iraqi army make inroads into the highly populated western districts. Recent data show as many as 10,000 people fleeing each day according to the Iraqi minister for migration Jassim Mohammed al-Jaff, more specifically the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) stated that 45,714 individuals have been displaced from western Mosul since February 25. The IOM also said that since the operation began last October, more than 200,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes. United Nations (UN) has expressed concern about the 750,000 civilians trapped in the city under ISIS control. There also are severe problems to get access to drinking water and staple food. The complexity is such that the offensive remains limited to some areas due to the large population living in western Mosul, however, at the same time those civilians are in danger of starvation.