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The Painful Battle for Mosul

On 19 February 2017 Iraq's Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced the resumption of the offensive on the city of Mosul, which had been under ISIS control since 2014. In the preceding four months, the Iraq Army and various allied militias has wrested back control of the eastern part of the city. The western part, however, was thought to pose a much bigger challenge, with the narrow streets of the old city giving cover to die-hard fighters determined to stand their ground.
I joined a unit of special forces troops on the second day of the offensive as they fought their way through the village of Albu Saif, which overlooks the city's airport. Nervy soldiers in armoured vehicles edged their way through narrow alleys as helicopter gunships rained fire on ISIS positions in the lower half of the village. The bodies of ISIS fighters lay scattered around the streets. Mosul is ISIS's last major stronghold in Iraq, and holds great symbolic value as the place where Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the movement's leader, announced the creation of the caliphate in 2014. Surrounded on all sides by Iraqi forces, the remaining militants had dug in and were using all means at their disposal - car bombs, snipers, mortars and grenade-laden drones - to block the troops' advance.

Over the next two weeks I visited the unit and the militarised police who were fighting alongside them several times as they advanced, street by street, into the the southern districts of West Mosul. As they pushed further into the city, civilians began to flee in huge numbers, streaming away from the fighting on foot, often with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

As Iraqi authorities attempted to weed out potential ISIS supporters from the waves of people emerging out of the battered city, tens of thousands of civilians began to fill up a series of hastily constructed IDP camps where aid agencies rushed to provide assistance.

When I left Mosul in early March the fighting was in full swing, and troops were approaching the old town of central Mosul. The eventual outcome of the battle did not appear in doubt; ISIS were outmanned and outgunned. What was less certain was what would happen next, and what could be done to end the 14 year cycle of violence in this deeply divided nation.

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