Rowboats and missiles in war of attrition on Iraq front line


Iraqi rapid response forces take up positions on the roof of a house as their Islamic State enemies plot their next move along the front line between east and west Mosul.

Sometimes the militants row small boats across the Tigris River at night to stage surprise attacks, or they fire mortar bombs that can rattle whole neighbourhoods.

Jihadist snipers are a constant threat, dug in along a tree line about 600 metres away.

Both sides are waging a war of attrition as government forces, who have retaken most of east Mosul over the past three months, prepare to push into the west of the city.

Two nights ago, Iraqi forces got lucky. With night-vision binoculars, they spotted 20 militants who had crossed the river in wooden boats and begun crawling across a field towards a small military camp.

Rapid response forces opened fire and killed the jihadists, all identified as foreign fighters, the most hardcore in Islamic State’s ranks.

A young soldier held up his cell phone to show footage of the corpses of the jihadists, clad in military fatigues.
“They are trying everything they can,” said Zafir Azim, a member of the rapid response unit, standing among spent bullet cases scattered across a rooftop beside rockets and a sniper rifle.
“Those men had all kinds of weapons on them. Hand grenades, rifles and lots of ammunition.”


The battle for Mosul, Islamic State’s last big stronghold in Iraq, is entering a critical phase. Iraqi forces have gained confidence and momentum by pushing through the east but fighting on the other side of the river could be more complicated.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers cannot fit through western Mosul’s narrow streets, depriving government forces of a major advantage.

The fall of Mosul would effectively mark the end of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, declared in 2014 when only about 800 militants swept into Iraq’s second largest city with virtually no opposition from the Iraqi army.

While the loss of Mosul would be a crushing blow, Islamic State is expected to wage an insurgency in Iraq and inspire attacks in the West.

For now, members of the Iraqi rapid response team seem cautiously optimistic as they face about 50 militants positioned across the Tigris.

A large white structure used by the militants, located just beyond the opposite bank of the river, was heavily damaged recently, as was a car.

One of the soldiers stared into a Russian-made scope used to guide missiles at a bulldozer used by Islamic State to create earth barriers.

The earthmover was destroyed, part of a cat and mouse game that could give either side the advantage as the campaign in the west begins.

The rapid response unit has superior weapons: Humvees, tanks, missiles, surveillance drones controlled by computers in a high-tech van, and support from U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

Islamic State seems to be banking on determination and cunning as it stares at enemies across the Tigris from ditches and tall grass.
“Whenever we can spot them we just open fire with tanks or mortars and rockets,” said Major Luay Abbas.

Minutes later the thud of an incoming mortar could be heard.

Just beyond the building where Abbas and his comrades ate a lunch of rice, tomato sauce and bread was a cemetery that Islamic State destroyed because it did not conform with its beliefs.

On the rooftop of another building, Iraq forces opened fire with machine guns and sniper rifles to prevent militants from shooting at a family fleeing the area on foot. About 30 minutes later the family could be seen walking into a secure area.
“There are usually two snipers in those fields who shoot at us every day,” said Sermaid Ali, as one of his comrades prepared to open fire again.

Across the river, the men could see rowing boats like the ones Islamic State had used against them.