MOSUL, IRAQ —
“When we got out of the house, we ran. A sniper's bullet nearly hit my aunt’s foot,” says Nouradine, a former tile worker in a tiny grocery store in Mosul.
Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants had been fighting for a month in Nouradine's area, so when he saw his chance a few days ago, he ran.
When Nouradine reached a neighborhood firmly controlled by the Iraqi army, he shaved his IS-mandated beard immediately. “When I came, everyone was afraid of me,” he jokes.
The next day, the fighting finally stopped. Iraqi forces had secured it and several other fiercely contested neighborhoods in the past week, building momentum as the military fights toward its immediate goal of recapturing all of the city east of the Tigris River.
WATCH: Heather Murdock's report from Mosul
Iraqi forces supported by an international coalition have been battling to re-take Mosul, and all of Iraq, from IS since mid-October. As the New Year began, forces began a new push, intensifying their efforts. Fighters in eastern Mosul, one of the few urban fronts of the current battle, say they think speed will help them defeat their enemy.
“We are attacking them as fast as possible,” says Iraqi Special Ops. Forces 1st Lt. Ali Sahaf,” outside his Mosul base, which was once the home of a Christian family, but later occupied by IS militants. “It is because we don’t want to give them time to reorganize their units and build defense lines for themselves.”
If and when Iraqi and coalition forces take all of eastern Mosul, the urban battle will once again change drastically, as IS will be protected by the Tigris River on one side, and IS-controlled territories around the city on the other. As of Saturday, Iraqi forces had breached one section of the river inside Mosul, but IS currently controls most of the river inside the city.
Already militants are deploying new tactics, such as using drones to drop bombs on Iraqi forces, according to soldiers.
“Before, they used drones to take video of the Iraqi army to plan attacks,” said Captain Ahmed Haidar, an Iraqi Special Ops. Forces officer fighting in Mosul. “More recently, they changed tactics and they have been arming drones with small bombs and dropping them on us.”
While 145,000 people have fled their homes since this offensive began, Mosul remains crowded with families, desperate to rebuild their lives and their decimated city after two-and-a-half years under IS control.
Othman Taha keeps a picture of his son, Abdulrahman, hanging on the wall of his small grocery store. Abdulrahman was 3 years old when he was murdered under IS, says Taha.
“They call themselves Islamic State but they are not Muslims,” he says. “Islam does not allow murdering children or anyone else.”
With almost no government services, including running water and electricity, residents are living among massive piles of garbage and rubble from bombs. People who were poor are now destitute, trying anything to eke out a living.
Some young men collect scraps of rubber from the wreckage to sell. Others find bushes and trees to cut down and use for fuel. Shops slowly restock their shelves with items imported from Kurdish Iraq as the goods imported from Syria under IS stopped coming when Iraqi forces cut the militants' escape route last year.
Very few people are buying much, locals say, because most were unemployed with IS in control.
“No one has enough water in this area,” says Rayed Zaida, a 55-year-old former taxi driver. IS cut water pipes when they fled this area to punish the people. “We put pipes into the ground five meters, and the water we bring up is not clean.”