As Iraqi forces, accompanied by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and artillery fire, continue the nearly three-month liberation effort of Mosul from ISIS, military personnel are learning more about the Islamic State’s rule, including an educational app for children that rewards them with unloading bombs on Western cities in a virtual game, according to Maj. Chris Parker.
Parker, a public affairs officer in the Army Reserve and Coosa High School teacher, wrote in an email from the Combined Joint Task Force headquarters in Southwest Asia that the app is used to teach children the alphabet and, if they respond correctly, are given the virtual opportunity to unleash attacks. This is simply one example matching reports from formerly held ISIS territory with recently retaken portions of eastern Mosul under Operation Inherent Resolve, he said.
“While they purport to be a government, they are in truth nothing more than a brutal gang of thugs using violence and intimidation to try to maintain power while simultaneously attempting to force their twisted ideology on the people,” Parker said. “I think the examples we have seen with education are awful.
“We’ve heard tales of executions in the streets, and children being forced to watch.”
The push to pull Mosul from the grasp of ISIS began in October, but Iraqi soldiers have faced numerous setbacks along the way as their opposition resorts to unsavory means of warfare in defense of their proclaimed caliphate stronghold.
“Their tactics are designed to avoid direct military confrontation. They are cowardly and they fight without honor. They hide behind civilians and put civilians at risk because they know that we are trying to protect those people.
“We have seen them operate from schools and mosques and hospitals in an attempt to hide behind an international law that they do not follow. These are the tactics of terrorists, but these are tactics that we have dealt with before,” Parker said.
With an Iraqi general telling the Associated Press on Wednesday that close to 85 percent of eastern Mosul is under government control and the operation could end within three months or less, the battle will head into the western part of the city, which Parker says “is much more densely populated than the more industrial east side.”
He said he couldn’t detail the specifics of the Iraqi plan in West Mosul, but what is known is that ISIS is fully aware of the American military’s concern for accuracy in strikes to avoid civilian casualties and the group will seek to undermine such positioning as the fight rages on.
“The coalition takes great care to avoid civilian casualties, and Daesh knows this. However, we continue to share intelligence with our Iraqi counterparts, and we continue to conduct strikes where we know the enemy is operating,” Parker said. “We have to be careful, but we are still able to strike the enemy in what is a very precise bombing campaign.”
Challenges of battle
A major strategic difficulty, Parker says, is the landscape of the battle, as urban terrain creates a “three-dimensional fight” with Iraqi forces having “to be aware of not only what’s in front of them and what’s to the sides, but also what is above and below them.”
“Fighting in a major metropolitan area like Mosul presents challenges, and would in any war,” he says. “Daesh (ISIS) has had two years to build up defenses, and we’ve known they use tunnels to move around the city. … Tactics like the use of suicide vehicle borne IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are also very dangerous.”
Despite ISIS’s use of explosive-rigged vehicles — concealing them in alleyways or running them into oncoming forces — and adequate munitions development for artillery strikes in the past, he says their capability to resupply such resources is deteriorating.
“I do know that early on they were able to finance themselves pretty well with stolen oil,” Parker said. “Since then, however, we have struck at the heart of their finances, destroying cash reserves and destroying oil well heads and oil trucks. Whatever levels of manufacturing they may have had before, their resources are dwindling now and they are under pressure because of our strikes.
“We’ve been able to assist the ISF by striking the enemy’s VBIED factories from the air, and in some cases we’ve been able to strike the VBIEDs themselves before the enemy could get them in position.”
American military and intelligence advisers have been upped by 40 and will continue to move further into the city to better advise Iraqi security forces, meaning U.S. personnel aren’t completely removed from danger, even though they aren’t personally engaging in the fighting, Parker said.
The intense battle is playing its role in forcing civilians from the city, with Parker saying that “according to (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) about 15,700 displaced persons from Mosul and its surrounding areas have already returned to their areas of origin, mostly in areas south and east of Mosul.” Other refugees from Mosul, namely the 1,875 at Nargizlia 1 camp northeast of the city, are being “well-cared for,” Parker says. The Iraqi government is leading the cause, assisted by non-governmental agencies and the UN Refugee Agency who “provided all of the new arrivals there with essential household items from mattresses and blankets to kitchen sets and heating stoves.”
A potential disaster
Parker says the offensive isn’t a race and will take time to achieve the goal of eradicating ISIS from Mosul. But all of this comes at a time when perhaps an even greater threat is in the midst.
According to an Associated Press report from February, the Mosul Dam, which opened in 1985 and controls the water flow of the Tigris River that runs through the city and into southern Iraq, was referred to by the U.S. embassy to be dangerously at risk of collapse.
The report goes on to say that U.S. officials believe if the 113-meter-high dam, with a haphazard construction on soluble rock, is compromised, it could kill a half million people and uproot millions more.
ISIS occupied the dam after taking Mosul in 2014, but it was subsequently retaken by Kurdish fighters shortly after, with prodding from the U.S. who feared it would be blown up.
“During their (ISIS’s) occupation of the dam, regular maintenance work ceased, exacerbating an already risky situation,” Parker said. “The government of Iraq has the lead on this issue. They have hired an Italian company, the Trevi Group, to perform maintenance work on Mosul Dam and they commenced critical remediation work back in October.”
Whether it be the dam itself or Iraqi forces battling on, the city of Mosul remains in a precarious predicament between liberation and occupation.