With the fight between Iraqi forces and Islamic State intensifying in the narrow streets of western Mosul, IS fighters are changing their suicide tactics in hopes of causing large numbers of casualties among civilians and troops, Iraqi officials told VOA.
IS militants are predominantly using belts laden with explosives to stop enemy advances as fighting is concentrated in alcoves and alleyways where IS's known method of using suicide car bombs is not possible, say Iraqi commanders on the scene.
In battles on the outskirts of Mosul and in more open neighborhoods of the city, IS unleashed waves of vehicles packed with homemade bombs at Iraqi troops. Iraqi commanders are hoping explosive-laden IS fighters will not be as effective on Mosul's ancient inner city streets.
"The enemy's inability to use suicide car bombs in those neighborhoods is in our advantage," said Lt. Kiffah al-Mazhar, a commander of Iraqi federal forces in Mosul. "But this doesn't mean fighting for Old Mosul will be easier. The narrower the neighborhoods, the harder the fighting."
The U.S.-backed offensive to rid Mosul of IS began last October. Iraqi forces are now in control of most of the city. But advances have slowed in the last two weeks as fighting entered the center of the city, known as Old Mosul.
There are currently 400,000 residents "trapped" in the alleys under siege-like conditions. They face food shortages and growing panic under shelling that could provoke a mass exodus, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR warned Thursday.
"They are desperate for food," Bruno Geddo, the UNHCR representative in Iraq, told reporters in Geneva by phone. "They are panicked."
IS is reportedly holding some residents as human shields. Al-Mazhar said IS fighters wearing suicide vests are holding some residents hostage and IS snipers are firing at Iraqi forces from civilian homes where they think they can avoid airstrikes. IS suicide bombers are dressing as civilians to attack Iraqi forces with light arms and suicide belts.
"IS would use explosives-laden belts and would even force civilians to carry them in those neighborhoods," al-Mazhar said.
According to a report by The Hague's International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), a majority of IS suicide attacks in the past in Iraq and Syria have been carried out in car bomb operations.
Studying IS suicide operations between December 2015 and November 2016, ICCT found that "seventy percent of IS's suicide fighters died in [car bomb] operations."
IS also used special operatives known as "inghimas fighters" who attacked with light arms and suicide belts.
"It is apparent from the scale of IS's suicide industry that there exists a dedicated infrastructure for manufacturing would-be martyrs and it is only increasing in efficiency," the report said.
Ghayath Surchi, spokesman for the Kurdistan Patriotic Union party in Mosul, said almost all IS fighters remaining in Mosul — which according to the Pentagon number about 2,000 — are trained as suicide bombers.
"The fighters are there to die," he told VOA. "The camps they used to prepare car bombs are destroyed by coalition airstrikes and they are running out of vehicles in Mosul. They can't expect to get much from suicide belts."
Iraqi officials say the operation in old Mosul may be slowed as forces figure out how to evacuate trapped civilians from IS clutches.
"The problem is refugee camps are filled with displaced civilians and the Iraqi government is trying to find a place for those who will be evacuated from old Mosul," Surchi said. "They can't proceed with an operation when there is no shelter for thousands of people who are expected to flee."