On February 19 the campaign to retake Mosul began anew. The Iraqi forces attacked across three fronts with the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) following the Tigris River up to Mosul Airport and then into south Mosul. The BBC’s Quentin Sommervile was embedded with the RRD during its initial assault on the city.
- The Iraqi forces started off the new operation by seizing several towns south of Mosul including Albu Saif. What was the importance of that that town and how much resistance was the Islamic State putting up in those rural areas?
Albu Saif mattered because it was high ground above the airport, and perhaps the last remaining stronghold before ISF got city proper. Iraqi forces, I was with the Interior Ministry’s Emergency Response Division, 1st Brigade, made quick progress to Albu Saif, mostly across desert and through small villages. The armoured advance stretched for miles. It was taken quicker than expected and here we started to see dead IS fighters in numbers. After the grinding attrition of the campaign in East Mosul, the troops were clearly enjoying the swift, mostly unencumbered advance.
However, at least one ERD Humvee was destroyed on the way into the town and Iraqi forces had a few casualties there. The town was rigged with roadside bombs. In the early part of the offensive there were around half a dozen VIBEDs, usually in trucks and very large. They took the town in an afternoon, but it took at least 24 hours to secure it, and there were more casualties during the night.
By mid week, IS retreated to a sugar factory just to the north of Albu Saif. Their flag was flying until the Thursday morning when it, and what was left of the airport was captured.
The airport, Mosul International, was never large, despite the name. But any terminal buildings and air traffic tower were destroyed. The runway was hard to make out it was so badly damaged.
- Much has been made of the Trump administration’s new policy of allowing U.S. advisers to now operate at the front. While you were travelling with the ERD did you see any Americans or other Coalition forces and what was their role?
Plenty. US Special Forces were a constant and conspicuous presence on the front line. (I was told Navy Seals were among those deployed). They travelled in [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] (MRAPs) and were assisting in airstrike targeting. US artillery was to the rear near Hammam Alil, and there were other uniformed troops, route clearance teams, etc, around. We were also made aware of British Special Forces at one of our locations but didn’t actually spot them.
- As the ERD moved from Abu Saif to the Mosul Airport and then into southern Mosul did you see a change in the intensity of the combat and the Islamic State’s defenses?
The fighting got more intense the closer they made it to Mosul. When the ERD broke through into the city, via a live berm breach just north of the airport, at Al Josak neighbourhood, the fighting took on a new intensity. IS were using mortars and heavy machine guns. There were more IEDs. And it was there that weaponized drones were used in greater numbers. IS targeted troops who’d taken cover behind walls. We met a number of people who had been fragged by grenades dropped from drones.
[Golden Division Counter Terrorism Service] CTS were having a much tougher time of it, I’m told by other correspondents who were with them. They weren’t able to break through into the city until later.
- In your initial reports when you were still in the rural areas outside Mosul you noted that you hardly saw any civilians. Now there is a flood of people leaving Mosul itself at a much higher rate than was seen in the eastern half of the city. Do you have any thoughts on why so many people are leaving?
They’re exhausted by the offensive but particularly coalition airstrikes. It was striking how few people we met – most had already left because of the fighting. One shepherd said he’d lost part of his flock to mortars. Another man said his brother’s family had been killed in an airstrike. They started heading south to IDP camps.