MOSUL, IRAQ - Mosul’s Old City is covered in rubble and virtually abandoned. Entire blocks are destroyed and many families still haven't found the bodies of their relatives under the crushed buildings.
Iraqi forces and locals are slowly trying to make the area inhabitable, with technical teams searching house by house for bombs, more than two months after government forces re-took Mosul.
But on Saturday, Islamic State militants hiding out in one of the homes were waiting.
“We were shocked when we saw them,” said Colonel Tahssen al-Mohammadawi of the Iraqi Federal Police at his West Mosul base shortly after returning from the ambush. “When the soldiers opened the door they were waiting with a gun ready to shoot.”
The militants fired and a battle ensued. Two fighters were hit by Iraqi grenades and their bodies caught fire. Two more were later killed, one shot on the street. Their bodies were thin, heavily bearded and they were wearing traditional clothes favored by militants in Mosul.
Iraqi forces generally do not report casualty figures publicly, but locals said at least one Iraqi soldier was killed and two more were injured.
Keeping the peace
Security in Western Mosul remains fragile with checkpoints now erected every few blocks. Federal Police share security duties with the Hashd Shaaby, or Popular Mobilization Units, formerly known as Shia Militias in the Sunni-majority city.
“We have to re-think our plan for the Old City,” said Al-Mohammadawi.
It is unknown how many IS militants could still be hiding in the rubble, tunnels and sewers under the city, according to soldiers. And until recently, it was reasonable to believe that some of the tales of surviving militants were false.
Ordinary people sneak into the Old City to try to recover their belongings, attempting to evade authorities who have declared it too dangerous for civilians. Young men running and hiding in what was once IS’s most treacherous stronghold in Iraq look suspicious to both soldiers and civilians.
“People sometimes run away from us because they think they could get in trouble,” said Federal Police Captain Baha. “But actually we are trying to just keep them safe.”
But with so many buildings abandoned, and Mosul’s Old City’s ideal defensive position — on a hill by a river overlooking the city — there could be an unknown number of militants hiding out.
“I think if there are any left you could count them on one hand,” said Col. al-Mohammadawi. “But then again, I didn't think there were any before today.”