By TIM ARANGO, ERIC SCHMITT and RUKMINI CALLIMACHIDEC.
ISTANBUL — After two months, the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State has settled into a grinding war of attrition. The front lines have barely budged in weeks. Casualties of Iraqi security forces are so high that American commanders heading the United States-led air campaign worry that they are unsustainable. Civilians are being killed or injured by Islamic State snipers and growing numbers of suicide bombers.
As the world watches the horrors unfolding in Aleppo, Syria, where government forces and allied militias bombed civilians and carried out summary executions as they retook the last rebel-held areas, a different tragedy is transpiring in Mosul. Up to one million people are trapped inside the city, running low on food and drinking water and facing the worsening cruelty of Islamic State fighters.
“ISIS members have become like mad dogs, and every member has the power of immediate execution,” Abu Noor said by telephone from his home on the west side of Mosul, which government forces had not reached, referring to the terror group by one of its acronyms. “We live in constant fear and worry.”
As the fight drags on, it is looking more and more likely that Mosul will become one of the first national security issues facing President-elect Donald J. Trump when he takes office next month. While American forces have largely steered clear of the fighting in Syria, they are deeply involved in operations just over the border in Iraq, mainly in training, advising and support roles.
Senior American officials and top commanders in the Middle East say the brutal urban fight for Mosul is succeeding — however slowly — but is proving to be tougher than expected. These officials predict that the battle to oust the Islamic State from Iraq’s second-largest city could last two to four more months.
Brett H. McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, noted at a recent White House briefing that previous battles against the terror group, as in Falluja, in Iraq, or Ramadi or Kobani, in Syria, took months, and said that eventually the Islamic State would exhaust its supply of munitions and fighters.
“Eventually they reach a culmination point, they simply cannot resupply, they run out of suicide bombers,” Mr. McGurk said. “In Mosul, we don’t know when that will come. It could come very soon, it could come a couple months from now, but our momentum will be sustained and we’ll provide relentless pressure on the enemy throughout Mosul.”
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend gave Pentagon reporters a year-end update that made no prediction on how soon Mosul would be liberated. “It’s progressing. It’s probably not progressing as fast as I, as a U.S. Army officer, would like, but it is progressing, and the Iraqis are advancing every day,” he said.
General Townsend said the Iraqis were engaged in discussions “about how to inject new energy” into their assault. “We’re just going to let it go at the pace” of the Iraqi military, he said. “They’re the ones doing the fighting and the dying.”
The battle for Mosul has shaped up unlike any other in Iraq. As Iraqi forces have advanced, they have uncovered Islamic State bomb-making facilities that have stunned soldiers and researchers in their sophistication, indicating that it could be a long time before the group runs out of arms.
A recent report from Conflict Armament Research, a London-based organization that sent a team of researchers to eastern Mosul, said the Islamic State had been producing rockets and mortars on an “industrial” scale inside Mosul.
Tens of thousands of armaments have been produced, the organization said, with supplies from Turkey, which in the last year has tightened its border security and clamped down on Islamic State smuggling networks in the face of criticism from allies, including the United States, that it was turning a blind eye to the terror group.
The findings, the group said, indicate “a robust supply chain extending from Turkey, through Syria, to Mosul,” suggesting that Turkey’s efforts at the border have not been enough to cut off the Islamic State from suppliers.
Shakir Mahmood, a soldier in Iraq’s elite counterterror forces, fought in battles in Ramadi, Falluja and Tikrit, but they were nothing like the fight he has faced in Mosul, he said.
“I have never seen or witnessed a battle like the battle for Mosul,” he said. “They have so many snipers hiding in the houses among civilians, and also many car bombs. Our losses in this battle cannot be compared with the other battles.”
Another veteran soldier, Ibrahim Ali, said: “I have seen things in Mosul that I will never forget my whole life. I have seen entire families get killed because of ISIS car bombs. And I have lost dear friends in Mosul.”
The Iraqi government does not release figures of military casualties, but it is clear in talking to officers that they are worrisomely high. The United Nations reported on Dec. 1 that 1,959 members of the Iraqi security forces had died in November. But after the Iraqi military protested, the United Nations issued a new statement saying its figures were “largely unverified” and said it would discontinue releasing casualty statistics for the military.
When the battle started, in mid-October, it moved fairly quickly as forces took outlying areas that had mostly been empty of civilians.
Journalists were given wide access to the front lines. But recently, getting the news out of Mosul has become more difficult; commanders are prohibiting most front-line embeds.
The tightening of access, apparently, was not an effort to control the narrative, but a reaction to the recent appearance in Mosul of Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher and writer, who is producing a documentary film about the battle. Why was that controversial? Because Mr. Levy is Jewish.
His appearance stirred outrage in Iraq, and the authorities in Baghdad moved to shut down access for all journalists.
By The New York Times
“The rumor spread that we were having relations with Israel,” said Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a special forces commander in Mosul, who said he had no idea who Mr. Levy was when he arrived. “In fact, we had no idea who this was that came to see us.”
He said access for journalists would be restored soon. “We will solve this problem,” he said.
Civilian casualties are soaring, even though the government, at the outset of the battle, dropped millions of leaflets over the city with instructions to stay inside their homes. Most civilians have, but those who have fled — there are some 90,000 people displaced from their homes around the city — have faced harrowing journeys, and many have been killed or maimed by crossfire.
That so many civilians have remained has hampered the fight, as Iraqi soldiers move slowly in an effort to protect them. It has also led to limited use of air power and artillery.
“Essentially, they are trying a different operational approach,” said Carl Castellano, a senior analyst at Talos, a consulting firm that focuses on security in Iraq. “They don’t have the capability to evacuate all these civilians, and so that’s limiting the amount of firepower they can use in the city. That is limiting their options in terms of what they can do — close air support and everything else.”
American air commanders have quickly sought to modify some of their bombing runs to counter shifting tactics by the Islamic State, cratering streets in Mosul with bombs to stymie car-bombers or at least slow them down, and stepping up attacks on car bomb factories in and around Mosul. Allied warplanes have destroyed nearly 140 car bombs or car-bomb factories since the Mosul offensive began, American officials said.
In the second week of December, nearly 700 civilians were wounded, from gunshots, mines and rocket fire, according to the United Nations, a 30 percent increase from the previous week.
Many of the injured wind up in the emergency rooms of hospitals in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
On a recent day, Saleh Hassoun sat in a hospital in Erbil, less than an hour’s drive from Mosul, at the bedside of his 1-year-old granddaughter, who had been wounded by a mine.
“The mines are everywhere,” he said. “The one that we set off was on the ground, and attached to a tiny cable. We didn’t see it, and the explosion killed both of my daughters and injured my granddaughter.”
A woman in the hospital, Umm Ussam, 54, had been shot through the neck. At first, she obeyed the instructions of the Iraqi Army to stay indoors, but once the military arrived she ran behind one of the Humvees, only to be picked off by a sniper, she said.
For those who did stay home and whose areas are now liberated, there are new challenges, and fears, not to mention a lack of services and a dwindling supply of safe drinking water.
“The government forces said stay in your houses, but our houses are without electricity or water,” said Sabah Kareem, whose neighborhood of eastern Mosul is now under government control. “We are amid hell. We don’t know when we will be bombed, or if ISIS will return to kill us.”
Tim Arango reported from Istanbul; Eric Schmitt from Doha, Qatar; and Rukmini Callimachi from Erbil, Iraq. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an employee of The New York Times from Erbil.