Why the battle against ISIS in Iraq’s Tal Afar is ‘many times worse’ than Mosul

Why the battle against ISIS in Iraq's Tal Afar is ‘many times worse’ than Mosul
The Iraqi military is engaged in fierce fighting against Islamic State militants in the Tal Afar district, where terrorists have fled from the city itself and remain holed up in the town of al-Ayadiya. As the operation enters its final stage, RT looks at what is making it so difficult.

“The gates of hell” is what Iraqi Colonel Kareem al-Lami calls the battle now facing Iraqi troops near Tal Afar, according to Reuters.

US-backed Iraqi troops lauded the almost complete liberation of the strategic town of Tal Afar, held for three years by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), on August 27 after a week-long operation. However, the forces are currently struggling to defeat the terrorists in the small town of al-Ayadiya a few miles north of Tal Afar, where the remaining militants continue to resist.

This last step towards the liberation of the district is even tougher than the battle for Mosul, located some 60km to the east, Colonel al-Lami says. That operation took eight months and was finished in June.

“We thought the battle for Mosul’s Old City was tough, but this one proved to be multiple times worst,” al-Lami told Reuters on Wednesday.

Diehard militants with nothing to lose

Hundreds of militants are reportedly holding the ground in al-Ayadiya. Their exact numbers remain unclear, and they are apparently some of the toughest fighters that IS has.

“Our intelligence shows that the most diehard Daesh [IS] fighters fled Tal Afar to al-Ayadiya,” Lieutenant Colonel Salah Kareem said, as cited by Reuters. “We are facing tough fighters who have nothing to lose and are ready to die.”

Those terrorists who don’t stand and fight attempt to flee the battle zone by hiding among displaced civilians on the run. At least 200 militants were found during security checks of 2,000 refugees, Iraqi news reports, citing the Kurdish Peshmerga, which is also fighting against IS in the area.  Kurdish forces also killed 130 more militants on the way to Syria, Iraqi news reported on Tuesday.

Ruins filled with explosives

During their retreat from the city, IS terrorists left behind deadly traps that have turned Tal Afar “into a sappers’ nightmare” as explosives could be hidden anywhere, RT correspondent Murad Gazdiev reported from the ground.

The Iraqi military told RT it had found such ‘surprises’ in the most unexpected places. Troops continue to find wires everywhere and dare not touch anything.

“One of our officers went into a house and sat on a sofa. It exploded, along with half of the house,” an Iraqi commander said. “They booby-trapped the sofa.”

“Another example: there were explosives in the light switches. If you turn the light on, it explodes. There were bombs in refrigerators and even in door handles.”

Some houses packed with explosives will have to be destroyed while the military does its best to clear the area. Meanwhile, many houses have already been reduced to rubble and there are no civilians in the suburbs of the city, where an RT crew was allowed to enter.

Civilians caught in the crossfire, used as human shields

At the beginning of the battle for Tal Afar around 40,000 civilians remained trapped in the city and its neighboring areas, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is providing aid there. The US-led coalition estimated that between 10,000 and 50,000 civilians remained in and around Tal Afar as of August 20.

Thousands of people, trapped in a warzone, faced a grim choice.

“Being used as human shields by ISIS, risk being killed in a coalition airstrike or make a run for it, brave the crossfire, the desert and the merciless heat in the hope that you get out,” RT correspondent Gazdiev reported from the area.

Their plight was highlighted by the UN.

“Iraqi civilians are likely to be held as human shields again and that attempts to flee could result in executions or shootings,”said Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

To have a hope of escaping Tal Afar, civilians had to move at night not to be caught by IS terrorists. The terrorists took men from the families trying to flee, according to Oxfam, which spoke to the civilians at a screening site in Badush, around 60km east of the city.
The journey, in scorching heat and in constant fear of airstrikes, was a horror in itself.

“The road was steep and rocky, and old people were dying. It was so hard to walk and the road smelled of dead bodies. I lost my voice because I was shouting at my children to stay with me. They were so scared,” Ahlam Ibrahim, who fled the village of Mzra’a near Tal Afar, said, as cited by Oxfam.

“We saw a lot of people killed; that’s why we were so afraid. We are worried they will kill my husband. My son won’t stop crying because ISIS took his father and we don’t know where he is,” a woman from Mzra’a said.

Under-supplied camps & refugees with nowhere to go

Over 30,000 people have fled the Tal Afar area since April, 14,000 of them since the start of the military operation there, according to the NRC. Those who have managed to flee are waiting for it to be safe to return home, but some fear that there is nothing to return to.

“We can’t go back unless the government allows us to – a lot of homes are booby-trapped and there are IED [improvised explosive devices] and mines everywhere,” the NRC cited Mehmoud Mustafa, a refugee from Tal Afar, as saying.

“There are almost no services where we come from, and no food and water and things that we need to get by,” Sami from Tal Afar told the organization.

“We also need to be allowed to return to our homes by the government and military forces. So we will go back when I have enough money and something to go back to. Now we have nothing left of our properties,” he added.

Meanwhile, displaced people trapped in refugee camps suffer from a lack of water, food, electricity, medicine and medical assistance. People in the Umm al-Jarabeeh camp told RT’s video agency Ruptly they are desperate to escape the dire conditions and return to their homes.

“There is no electricity, the floor is soil and the roof is nylon, as if we are pickles in a bag,” one resident, Ahmed Ali, told Ruptly last week.

“There are [water] tanks which come here but they distribute only four tanks of 20 liters for 11 people. What can we do with this amount of water? Shall we drink it or use it for washing? Or shall we use it for cooking? It is not enough for the family,” he said, adding that the water the refugees get is contaminated.

People at another camp, the ‘Western Axis Camp,’ located west of Tal Afar, which accommodates more than 1,500 families, also said that the facility lacks the necessary supplies while the authorities care little about them.

“We are hungry. We need bread, aid. We need clothes, water. Yesterday we got contaminated water, even animals won’t drink it. We are living in tough times. No authorities are checking how we are doing. No mercy. We need a solution. We are in such a bad state. Everything is scarce. Even bread,” said Tal Afar refugee Ghaz Ghashman Hassan.

Another refugee, Abu Abdallah, called on the authorities to deal with the shortage of medicines.

“The nearest access would be 100km away, and doctors there may or may not come,” he added.

Some said that they would prefer to go back to their ruined homes than sit with no aid in the heat.

“We urge the Iraqi government to liberate Tal Afar so that we can return to our villages and homes. Our children are disabled, it is hot, we sit here with no aid,” Azeez Omar Mohamed told Ruptly.

The rebuilding cannot even start yet, and when it does, it will take years.

“It will take a long time and a lot of resources to rebuild the cities, towns and villages that have been damaged and destroyed by this conflict. People cannot even begin this process unless they are safe. Once they are, people must be free to move when and where they choose so they can start the journey of rebuilding,”NRC country director Heidi Diedrich said.

Courtesy, RT

Iraqi forces recapture large portion of Tal Afar center from ‘Islamic State’

Iraqi forces have seized most parts of the northern city of Tal Afar from “Islamic State” (IS). The city is strategically important as it lies on the supply route between Syria and the former IS stronghold of Mosul.

Irak Bodenoffensive auf die Stadt Tal Afar (Reuters)

The Iraqi army said in a statement on Saturday its troops have “liberated” Tal Afar’s city center and its Ottoman-era citadel.

“Units of the Counter-Terrorism Service liberated the citadel and Basatin districts and raised the Iraqi flag on top of the citadel,” General Abdulamir Yarallah, the military offensive’s commander, said.

The aerial and ground offensives to recapture Tal Afar, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Mosul, from the militant IS group started earlier this month.

Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Saturday IS had been driven out from 70 percent of the city.

“God willing, the remaining part will be liberated soon,” Jaafari said at a news conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly, who are currently visiting the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Karte Irak Syrien Tel Afar englisch

Strategic stronghold

Tal Afar has long been a stronghold for hard-line Sunni insurgents. It was cut off from other IS-held territories in June during the Iraqi-led operation to recapture Mosul.

Read more: Iraq PM Haider al-Abadi declares Mosul victory over ‘Islamic State’Iraqi PM declares Mosul victory over IS

According to US and Iraqi military sources, there are roughly 2,000 IS militants in and around the city.

Over the past weeks, the US-led coalition against IS has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Tal Afar and the surrounding areas, targeting command centers and ammunition caches.

Humanitarian organizations are not expecting a mass exodus similar to that seen during the Mosul offensive and its eventual recapture. Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians are believed to be in Tal Afar and surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Watch video01:42

Iraqi army pushes to retake Tal Afar

shs/jlw (AFP, Reuters)

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City of corpses: 100s of bodies under rubble in Mosul, many women & children

A large number of bodies, many of them women and children, are still buried under the rubble in Mosul after the months-long operation to retake the city. RT’s Murad Gazdiev saw the gruesome aftermath of the battle declared a major success by the US-led coalition.

Multiple corpses of suspected Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants – but also civilians – are still lying under the rubble in the sweltering August heat.

Rescuers are working to retrieve corpses buried under collapsed houses, with many buildings literally reduced to ashes – possibly in the aftermath of bombings or artillery strikes. Parts of Mosul that were once residential areas are now ruins.

While the scenes of devastated streets still leave a grim impression, there is another harrowing feature that cannot be seen on television – the sickly odor of decomposing bodies, Gazdiev said.

“You’ve probably heard of thousands killed, the civilian suffering,”he says, standing among the Mosul ruins. “What you likely haven’t heard of is the smell. It’s nauseating, repulsive, and it’s everywhere – the smell of rotting bodies.”

As the RT team walks through the Old City, the camera captures the picture of destruction in what was once Iraq’s second-largest city. Burnt-out vehicles littered along the roadside, damaged walls and empty windows depict the heavy price that civilians paid for the Iraqi and US-led coalition’s Mosul victory.

“Under the rubble there are hundreds and hundreds of corpses – jihadists as well as civilians and families,” Gazdiev reported. Two women and two children have been pulled out just this morning, he said, adding that there’s no end in sight for those whose work is to recover the bodies.

Local emergency services working in the Old City say they were equally shocked and scared when they realized the number of casualties. “What I’ve seen here makes me cry,” one Iraqi officer, Ibrahim, told RT.

“You can bring anyone here and they will break down in tears because we’re all human beings,” he said.

Rescuers will probably need months to unearth all the bodies, and months more to start reconstruction of the city. More than $1 billion will be needed to repair Mosul’s basic infrastructure alone, according to UN estimates.

In the meantime, “stabilization” costs that included an overhaul of water, sewage and electricity infrastructure, and reopening schools and hospitals, twice exceeded initial calculations, Lise Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told Reuters back in July.

“In western Mosul what we’re seeing is the worst damage of the entire conflict. In those neighborhoods where the fighting has been the fiercest, we’re looking at levels of damage incomparable to anything else that has happened in Iraq so far,” she said.

Courtesy, RT

The secret lives of young IS fighters

Three young IS militants lie dead on the banks of the River Tigris.

They left behind personal photos and documents which reveal the extraordinary story of their private lives.

Warning: Disturbing content

Mohammed is giddy with excitement as he films the discovery of three IS fighters on his mobile phone.

“Shoot him,” he shouts, gesturing at one of them.

His nervousness gives him away as the unit’s cook. He’s unarmed, but his fellow soldiers from the Iraqi police special forces – known as the Emergency Response Division – are armed to the teeth and are not taking any chances.

A body and a pile of clothes on the banks of the Tigris

A body and a pile of clothes on the banks of the Tigris

Two of the IS fighters are clearly dead. One, most likely a boy, is buried under the rubble of concrete bunker. His small, blackened hand sticks out from mangled remains. Nearby, an older fighter lies in the grass. His eyes are open, but part of his head is missing. He died in the same airstrike that took out the bunker.

But it is the third man, lying in the shadows, further ahead on the path alongside the River Tigris, who has the soldiers worried.

Be careful … Look to his hand, maybe he has a grenade. Go slowly.”

Mohammed

They fire a couple of shots into the prone figure. It does not move.

“He is a son of a bitch, he was hiding. Be careful, be careful,” says one of the soldiers. “I don’t think he has a suicide vest,” says another.

An Iraqi soldier investigates the scene

An Iraqi soldier investigates the scene

They are at the foot of an olive grove, which is serving as the temporary base of the ERD as they push towards west Mosul, the last major redoubt of IS in Iraq.

Up close I look upon the dead man. His right leg is mangled, sliced through to the bone. He appears to have crawled out of the bunker and found a small hiding place in the rocks by the riverside.

Even in death his face is distinctive – a narrow chin and a puckish nose. His beard is wispy. He is more of a boy than a man. Nearby, soldiers find an M16 rifle which is marked as property of the US Government.

Close up of the M16 machine gun

Close up of the M16 machine gun

It is likely to have been among the thousands of weapons and vehicles IS seized from retreating Iraqi forces when it swept through from Syria more than two years previously.

“Adel, Adel, does anyone have ammunition? I want a full magazine,” says a fighter searching the dead man. The M16 now belongs to the man who found it.

“We have to go, it isn’t safe here,” an officer tells me. The men are jumpy and want to return to the base. There are still other IS fighters in the area, they warn.

It is late February and these men are in the midst of the battle of their lives. In three days they made lightning progress across the territory to the south of Mosul. Ahead of them the village of the Al-Buseif, then the ruined airport and the neighbourhoods of the west of the city.

All would fall in rapid succession, but the closer to Mosul they come, the more IS fighters they encounter, and the more bodies end up strewn across the roads and pathways.

It is already clear from the assault on the city’s east – it took 100 days – that IS prepared well for this fight. Mosul was turned into a giant arsenal, with weapons dumps and hideouts in every neighbourhood.

Before we climb back up the hill to the base, I look again on the dead fighters. In the grass beside one, I find a small piece of paper marked with an IS stamp. It is a leave permission slip. On the back, it is smeared with his blood.

IS leave permission slip

IS leave permission slip

The soldiers do one final check of the bodies. On the young man in the shadows, they find some cash – a small amount of Syrian pounds, almost worthless. But in his other pocket, there is something small and far more valuable – a memory card from a mobile phone.

The pictures on it will lead us to uncover fragments of the lives of the dead men, the deep camaraderie among them, their brutality, and their journey through the battle for Mosul. And it will cast light on the dead fighter in the shadows. Who was this young man and what secrets of Islamic State did he leave behind?

His hidden
photos

The photographs begin as bright family snapshots, but soon darken. The young man is seated, with the trace of a smile on his face. He is doe-eyed beside a little girl. Perhaps it is his sister. He holds her close, and she has her index finger raised – the Islamic sign for one true god.

His hair is curly, long and parted in the middle, and as the pictures progress they have been edited. His cheeks and lips turned a girlish pink, the whites of his eyes are touched-up and bright.

A transformation is taking place.

Soon he is in military gear, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, a walkie-talkie in his top pocket.

In another photo, he is asleep. It is almost certainly posed, the intention is to show a warrior at rest.

This is no longer a family album, it’s now a record of a martyr-to-be, a baby-faced suicide attacker, cleansed and ready to sacrifice himself for his cause.

The memory card found on his body has other pictures, too.
There is a group shot of young men and boys. The fighter is not in the frame. Maybe he is behind the camera, taking the shot. I would later learn that most of the men and boys were from Mosul and were part of the Nineveh Fire Support Group, a rear-line, back-up unit. Their time in IS has forged a deep bond between them.

One of the most striking is a photograph of what appears to be the fighter’s brother-in-arms. This man looks older, his hair is long and is also parted. He stares intently at the camera. My eye is drawn to his hands, which are settled on his waist. Curiously, he is wearing black gloves. Underneath those hands, hidden by his shirt, there is a suicide belt. His thumbs rest on its bulge.

The gloves are worn to hide the switch that will detonate the explosives, disguised so that the target does not recognise the threat posed by the smiling young man in khaki, until it is too late.

There are group pictures, too, with older men. Battle-hardened and scarred, their faces are unforgettable. And to some in Mosul, they are familiar.

But the photographs from the phone card have another secret to reveal, one that was right under my nose the entire time.

Secret hideout

The men fighting in the battle for Mosul alternate between two states – the hyper vigilance of the battlefield and a swallowing exhaustion barely touched by a few hours sleep at night.

As a journalist following the men, I slip into the same routine. Rising before dawn, driving to the front, watching as they dodge mortar and rocket fire, avoid roadside bombs and drones. And ducking when IS snipers and fighters open fire.

At night there is barely time for my crew to edit, recharge our equipment, and get some sleep, before heading out again.

Aerial footage of the farmhouse

Aerial footage of the farmhouse

So we do not pay very close attention to our sleeping quarters. In short, it is dark, we are tired, and we have other priorities. All we know is they’ve been checked for booby traps and that we are relatively safe here.

After almost two weeks at the farmhouse, the bodies of the three fighters still lie where they fell. But the dogs and birds are at their corpses. They are increasingly unrecognisable.

As I go through the pictures from the mobile phone card again, the penny drops. These men did not just fight at the farmhouse. It was their home too. I recognise its walls and furnishings in some of the pictures.

Discovering the hideout:

On our last day at the front, with just a few hours to pack and return to the safety of Irbil, I decide to explore. Above my sleeping bag, there is a window. I remove the dusty curtain. Underneath are hidden notices from the caliphate, official IS orders.

They show IS struggling for resources, especially manpower and that the caliphate’s ranks are depleting fast.

On November 11, the Islamic State’s Minister for War calls for more special forces recruits.

By mid-December, new orders are issued to prevent desertion from the front.

Brothers are not allowed to retreat – use of force and commensurate violence allowed”

IS orders

At the back of a room, a blanket covers the wall. I can feel a draught from behind it, so I give it a sharp tug. In a cloud of dust, it falls away and reveals another room, small and bright, with a single window to a vegetable garden, and a bed.

This is the dead men’s sleeping quarters. Their clothes, and much more besides, lie scattered across the floor.

There is a Chelsea Football Club pillowcase lying beside IS wall posters, which list punishments for crimes in the caliphate.

Electrical parts are stripped from sockets and flashlights, presumably for military purposes. In the midst of the mess, something catches my eye. It is an anti-fungal medicine box with a blond-haired baby pictured on the front.

Its eyes are carefully gouged out. This defacement is likely because of an Islamic prohibition of the depiction of the human form.

The room is filthy. Hidden in the piles of material, something important has been left behind. A few pages of detailed handwritten notes and diagrams are carefully folded. They clearly meant a lot to the author, his IS staff number is written in the corner, and in bold English letters, his name: Abu Ali Al Moslaue. Is this the name of the young man depicted in the photos?

The handwriting is neat and careful in the beginning, and the notes are meticulous. They serve an important purpose, life and death, in fact. Abu Ali was learning how to fire mortars. It appears that he was an excellent and a diligent student. But like all schoolboys, he becomes more careless and erratic as the lessons drag on.

But he takes pride in his work. He notes practice runs in converting coordinates from Google Maps to actual targeting coordinates. He draws compass degrees as well as the curved graph course of mortar rounds.

Importantly, in the munitions section and in his own handwriting, he lists “chemical munitions” as a weapon.

There’s been much debate over whether IS has used chemical weapons in Mosul. Here at least, we know they are trained and prepared to use them.

He personalises his notes, sketching a logo for the unit and a makeshift IS stamp, labelled General Support Units.

And there are mottos: “Islamic State: Along the Prophet’s Methodology” and “Islamic State remains, in spite of the haters”.

He used an Education Department exam paper as his notebook, and clearly finds this amusing.

He records the school year as 2016-17, Subject: Mortar, and scores his own paper: “Final Marks: Congratulations. You passed. Total Marks: 100.”

The hideout has even more secrets to reveal. As I search through the detritus something catches my eye.

It looks irrelevant at first. The notebook is in tatters, hanging by a thread. Someone has scribbled the same Islamic poem and a prayer verse several times over a few pages, as if to etch them into memory. There are mistakes, the handwriting is shabby, the structure unappealing. This definitely doesn’t belong to Abu Ali.

But then numbers emerge, names, tables, tabulations and permutations. Whoever scribbled those names and numbers had the authority to dispatch patrols, put men on shifts together, see how many rounds they fired and how many they need for their next outing.

It definitely belongs to someone senior at that farmhouse, possibly the commander of those men. I discover his name is Abu Hashem.

The notebook reveals its secrets – it is a unit’s logbook from the Al-Buseif Air Defence Brigade, a sub-unit of the Nineveh Fire Support Group. They must have all been sharing the same farmhouse.

All in all, Abu Hashem commanded eight men and two vehicles. They formed the bulk of the Al-Buseif Air Defence mobile patrol. They drove a Hyundai pickup truck with a double-barrel anti-air cannon, and another pickup truck with a smaller calibre, single barrel heavy machine gun. Both vehicles were white, which is reportedly the preferred colour for Islamic State combat vehicles because they’re easier to camouflage with dirt and blend into the terrain.

Commander Abu Hashem appears to have been diligent. He meticulously records the sorties, the types of weapons used, the chassis number of his trucks, how many rounds they had, their type, how many rounds fired – even the faulty ones.

Not only was he a good logistician, but he also understood how small units worked. The record shows how he tried to foster and strengthen bonds between his men. Scheduling their lives, Abu Hashem made sure to couple fighters serving on the same vehicle to have meals together.

And so, while he’s having lunch with Abu Riad, his driver, Abu Hafs, the driver of the other vehicle is paired with a gunner, Abu Al-Sham.

The commander, his logbook shows, has clearly put some thought into this. He worked on two possible permutations, crossing off names before putting in a clean draft.

The burden of command must have weighed heavily on Abu Hashem’s mind while commanding his troops. This, however, didn’t soften him up.

Like any seasoned commander, he proved ready to show a tough disciplinary side. In one written order, he tasks one of his subordinates to lead a patrol. “Those who are found lacking must be punished,” he orders. “May Allah reward you with goodness,” wishing him well.

Taking the photos and the bundles of documents with me, I leave the farmhouse and finally Iraq. But for months, the men remain in my head.

Using what I already know about them, would I be able to find out more? Did they have families? What kind of lives had they led?

My search to find out more about the men begins in Mosul. It is early April and the 1st Brigade of Iraq’s ERD forces are deep inside the west of the city.

The farmhouse seems like a lifetime ago. Their new base, a house near the front lines is in a residential neighbourhood.

The steady thump of mortar fire rattles what is left of the windows. Captured IS suspects are being brought here. One man is pulled from a pick-up truck by the fighters.

He has been badly beaten. His T-shirt is covered in blood. It is not clear who hurt him.

It may have been the troops, or it could have been locals exacting revenge on those who had controlled and oppressed them in the proceeding years.

An intelligence major calls me into a back room. “I have someone for you to meet, someone we haven’t shared with anyone else,” he says.

A young, shifty-looking man, slight and dressed like an off-duty soldier comes into the room. Let’s call him Ibrahim.

He fought with IS for two years, but he is not a prisoner. He is a double agent, working for the Iraqi security forces.

I show him the photos that I have brought from the farmhouse.

Quentin speaks to Ibrahim:

“I know them very well,” he says. “Those are fighters. They were with the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Unit. This one was the section’s commander,” he says pointing to one of the older men in the photographs.

“They acted as a support unit for the front-line troops. They would spring into action as soon as they were needed.”

Along with the intelligence major, he confirms the men were mostly from Mosul. Ibrahim reflects on what his membership of IS had done to him, and most likely to the men and boys in the pictures.

I learned how to be tough. How to beat and kill without mercy. Especially with regards to prisoners”

Ibrahim

He notes that men from the Nineveh Fire Support Group lived spartan lives. “You should live like the Prophet, a simple life. A fighter needs very little to survive,” he says.

It is clear from Ibrahim and others that I meet that most of the men and boys in the pictures are dead.

Identifying all the men in the photographs has proved impossible. IS fighters use noms de guerre, but there was another factor at play.

As one member of the Mosul’s special forces team explains, “When IS came they were children, we don’t recognise them as men.”

Long before their advance stalled around Mosul’s old city, Iraqi forces advanced far quicker than expected towards the city’s western side. And it appears it was much faster than the Nineveh Fire Support Group anticipated.

Abu Ali and his brothers in arms had no time to destroy the material in their hideout. Their grasp of operational security was weak.

A slip of paper discovered on the floor of the farmhouse turns out to be coordinates of locations across Mosul.

Using Google Earth maps, I plot the information. I recognise one location – an IS mortar factory that I had visited in November 2016. The other coordinates are mortar storage and production units too, according to Iraq security forces.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, territory assessed as credible on 19 June 2017

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit, territory assessed as credible on 19 June 2017

About a dozen men had worked at the factory producing precisely milled mortar shells.

They had burned oil fires through holes in the building roof to hide it from coalition aircraft.

By the time we return to the mortar foundry in April, it is cleared of the shells and returned to commercial use.

Now it is making water tanks and roofing to replace those damaged in the fighting.

In November, people were willing to talk about the IS fighters who made weapons there, but by April, a wariness has settled on east Mosul. Locals may be freed from IS, but it feels like the militants are not very far away. The fear of retribution hangs in the air.

And it becomes easy to understand why when I make my way to the final destination in the journey to retrace the men of the Nineveh Fire Support Group.

In amongst the papers and documents I retrieved from the farmhouse are a number of religious books.

All are marked with the stamp of a mosque in east Mosul – one bearing the name of an imam has been dedicated to the young men.

Mosque of the believers

The Al Mou’meneen Mosque is not far from the mortar factory, and it is here that the group from the farmhouse prayed and brought terror to the local neighbourhood.

The mosque is modest and mostly without adornment. It is a bright spring day, and children are making their way home from school. But I have a sense of trepidation as I knock on the metal door. Is the imam who dedicated the book to the fighters still inside?

The caretaker answers and welcomes me inside. I take off my shoes and he sends a boy to find the imam. I sit waiting in the sunshine, drinking some sweet tea, listening to the children playing outside.

The imam who signed the book is long gone, he fled with IS. So the caretaker calls to find the man who led prayers before IS took control of Mosul.

The imam arrives, his name is Fares Fadel Ibrahim. He is younger than I expected, broad-shouldered and with a quiet confidence.

I show him the pictures of the fighters and he recognises most of them.

Quentin speaks to the imam:

He is nervous, though, and I soon discover why. “Please,” he asks, “Do not film me looking at the pictures.” Why is he afraid of these young men?

The fighters, he says, moved their entire families into this neighbourhood. Most were Iraqi, but there were foreigners, from Syria, Morocco and elsewhere, he says. They lived among them for more than a year and fled in November 2016 when Iraqi security forces advanced closer to the area.

Mullah Fares is, he explains, the temporary imam until the Department of Religious Affairs appoints someone permanently.

That said, it is clear that this is his mosque. He has prayed here since he was a boy – since the mosque was built in 1980. And then he preached there alongside the permanent imam, until IS came.

“What happened to the permanent imam,” I ask. “They murdered him,” he replies. And replaced him with their own preacher – the man who dedicated the book to the fighters. He called them “beloved darlings”.

As we sit on the carpet together in the prayer hall, he explains the story of IS in Mosul and his neighbourhood. They corrupted the city, he says, and worse still, the world’s view of Islam.

At first they treated people well, he explains. “They came with respect and appreciation and then their true intentions appeared.”

For IS, the mosques are a means of control and of recruitment.

Mullah Fares was given the option – join IS or stay at home and only return to the mosque he loved, to pray. So, he returned home.

They came in the name of faith, the residents of Mosul love faith, so anybody that comes to us as a person of faith we welcome it. But the reality was one thing and truth was another.”

Fares Fadel Ibrahim

IS set about a purge. Other preachers were accused of being “delaying salafies,” and were imprisoned for a month, or longer. When released they promised never to lead prayer again. Others, like the Al Mou’meneen’s permanent imam, were killed.

Looking at the pictures of the young men from the Nineveh Fire Support Group, Mullah Fares pauses for a moment, then says: “The power is with the person who holds the gun, even if he is very small and young. Like the young men from ISIS [IS] who killed some strong and old men of ours, like the imam here in the mosque, who was killed by children.”

It would soon be time for afternoon prayers and we have to finish the interview. Dozens of curious children are crowded around the mosque’s door, eager to get inside. But before Mullah Fares finishes, he has one more thing to say, about the young men who held this city.

They distorted the image of Islam, and this thinking will remain.”

Fares Fadel Ibrahim

He continues, “My dear brother, we are by nature people who love faith, young or old, we love Islam and Muslims. Even the prophet, while he encouraged invading different places, he ordered his men not to kill a child, a woman, or an old man, and not to cut down one tree. So where were these values of Islam?”

And with that, he stands up and begins the call to prayer. From the sunshine outside, the waiting children burst through the doors and get ready for their lessons.

The three dead fighters on the banks of the Tigris were little more than children. In fact, one was still was a child. The Nineveh Fire Support Group were enthusiastic in their campaign of destruction and terror. They helped turn parts of their city into a ruin, and furthered the corruption of their faith.

Did they die happy, knowing they had served their cause as was asked of them, I wonder.

They died as fighters, but they died as fools. Pity should be reserved for the people they once lived among, who were abused and killed as the young men sacrificed all around them, for their caliphate.

When they left Mullah Fares’ neighbourhood, they said to the people, “You did not take care of the caliphate, so you do not deserve it.”

But the truth of their cause was revealed when IS went into homes and destroyed them, killing families. IS and the Nineveh Fire Support Group had no love for Mosul nor its people. The young fighters were willing recruits, but they were also manipulated.

Quentin studies the photos:

As I retrace their steps through Mosul, the thing that strikes me most of all is their youth. It surprised almost everyone we spoke to. For IS, a fighter is anyone above the age of 15, but some of their recruits are much younger.

IS has had support in Mosul, but it inflated that support by weaponising children. Taking the young and the gullible and sacrificing them for its malicious cause.

In Mosul, IS is on the brink of defeat. The bodies by the riverbank are gone – carried away by dogs and other animals.

There is no longer any trace there of the young men. But their legacy of turmoil and destruction remains. It stretches far beyond Mosul, and far beyond the flow of the River Tigris.

IS destroys Mosul mosque where leader Baghdadi declared caliphate

“Islamic State” militants have blown up the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul where their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a self-styled caliphate in 2014. It comes as Iraqi forces push into Mosul’s Old City.

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‘IS’ destroys Mosul’s landmark al-Nuri mosque

The so-called “Islamic State” (IS) destroyed Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri mosque and its iconic leaning minaret late Wednesday, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense.

“The Daesh (IS) terror gangs committed another historical crime by blowing up the al-Nuri mosque and its historical al-Hadba minaret,” the Iraqi military statement said.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making a speech Reuters TV/File PhotoReclusive IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the “caliphate” at the mosque in 2014

The landmark, also known as Mosul’s Great Mosque, is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq – and named himself “caliph” – in mid-2014 shortly after the city was captured by the militants. It was the only time he has appeared in public.

Iraq’s prime minister said the demolition was IS effectively admitting defeat.

“It’s an official declaration of defeat,” Haider al-Abadi said in a statement issued hours after news broke of the mosque’s destruction.

Amaq, the IS news agency, blamed the destruction on a US airstrike. But a spokesman for the US-lead coalition denied striking the mosque. “We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Reuters.

“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” said a statement from the commander of the coalition’s ground component, US Army Major General Joseph Martin, using another acronym for IS.

A video shared on social media by a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a vast billow of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, saying “the minaret, the minaret, the minaret.”

Video released by Iraq’s military appears to show Nouri Mosque in Mosul being detonated by explosives.

Iraqi troops backed by US airpower  launched a push earlier this week to drive out IS fighters surrounded in Mosul’s Old City, after retaking several neighborhoods in western Mosul over the past few weeks.

The last militants are holed up in the Old City along with an estimated 100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.

More than 850,000 people have been displaced since the offensive to retake Iraq’s second-largest city began eight months ago.

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Mosul: Fleeing ‘Islamic State’

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‘Islamic State’ kills hundreds of fleeing civilians in Mosul, says UN

The UN says it has credible reports that “Islamic State” (IS) has killed more than 231 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul city since May 26. The UN body is also investigating civilian deaths in anti-IS airstrikes.

Irak - Flucht aus Mossul (picture alliance/AP/dpa/M. Alleruzzo)

A statement from the office of the United Nations human rights chief said Thursday the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) group had killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians trying to flee Mosul.

The UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had on Tuesday accused the militants of killing 163 civilians on June 1 in the city’s al-Shifa neighborhood.

The Thursday statement adds two new allegations, including a May 26 incident where IS reportedly shot dead 27 people, including five children.

Karte Irak ENG

The UN’s rights office said the jihadists slaughtered 41 civilians in the same neighborhood on June 3.

“Credible reports indicate that more than 231 civilians attempting to flee western Mosul have been killed since May 26, including at least 204 over three days last week alone,” the statement said.

“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families – there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts.”

Iraqi forces retook eastern Mosul from IS in January and last month began a push to capture the remaining parts of the city. Rights groups and monitors say some 200,000 people are trapped in western Mosul.

There are also reports that several May 31 air strikes from the anti-IS coalition killed between 50 and 80 people in the IS-controlled Mosul neighborhood, Zanjili. Zeid said the UN was also investigating these killings.

The UN rights chief urged the coalition “to ensure that their operations comply fully with international humanitarian law and that all possible measures are taken to avoid the loss of civilian lives.”

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Civilians killed while fleeing ‘IS’ in Mosul

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Shiite militants push IS out of key Iraqi town of Baaj

The pro-Baghdad Popular Mobilization Forces have driven the “Islamic State” out of the Iraqi town of Baaj, cutting one of the group’s supply lines between Mosul and Syria. The Shiite fighters are endorsed by Iran.

Irak Angriffe auf IS-Militante am Rande von Al-Baaj (Reuters/Stringer)

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‘IS’ digs its heels in as Iraqi troops advance in Mosul

As the Iraqi army begins to surrounding them, the so-called “Islamic State” jihadist group has responded with a campaign of car bombs and sniper fire. Mosul was the terrorists’ last urban stronghold. (28.05.2017)

US more than doubles bounty for ‘Islamic State’ leader

Iraqi forces capture key bridge in push to liberate Mosul

Iraqi air force backed the militia’s push into the border town, the Popular Mobilization group announced on Sunday.

The victory over the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS) fighters was a “big and qualitative achievement” in the larger operation to retake the city of Mosul from the IS jihadis, said deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The border town is located west of Mosul, and its loss cuts a key IS supply lines connecting the city with Syria. Baghdad’s troops launched the offensive to liberate Mosul eight months ago and uprooted the jihadi militia from several parts of the city. However, IS forces are still holding the western section of their last remaining urban stronghold in Iraq.

Iranian advisors active in Syria and Iraq

Despite the US backing, the anti-IS coalition was forced to slow down its efforts while facing car bombs and sniper fire in the densely populated areas of Mosul.

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The retaking of Baaj comes several weeks after the Popular Mobilization Forces started their push to reclaim the area near the Syrian border. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding in the region.

While the Shiite-dominated militia nominally answers to Baghdad, it is supported by the Shiite power Iran. Tehran provided training and military advisors to the Iraqi group, and also helped organize thousands of Shiite fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in Syria.

dj/sms (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)