SOUTHWEST OF MOSUL, Iraq, May 8, (RTRS): The Islamic State fighters herded a group of civilians into a house in the city of Mosul and locked them inside as Iraqi forces advanced. Moments later, the militants entered through a window, lay low for a few minutes, then fired their weapons.
The plan was simple. They would draw attention to the house by firing from the windows, then move to an adjacent building through a hole in the wall, in hope of goading coalition jets flying above to strike the house. What the militants did not realise was that US advisers partnered with Iraqi troops were watching the whole thing on an aerial drone feed.
No air strike was called — and the propaganda coup Islamic State would have reaped from the deaths of innocent people was averted. “We automatically knew what they were trying to do. They were trying to bait us into destroying this building,” said US Army Lieutenant Colonel James Browning. “This is the game that we play, this is the challenge that we go through every day.”
The challenge is only increasing as US-backed Iraqi forces squeeze the militants into a smaller and smaller area of Mosul, where they are now trapped along with several hundred thousand civilians. “There is nowhere to go … the battlefield is much more complicated with the amount of civilians that are moving,” Browning said. The risks are high: more than 100 civilians were accidentally killed in a single airstrike by the US-led coalition in March.
After opening up a new front in northwest Mosul last week in order to stretch the militants’ defences, Iraqi forces say the battle for Mosul is now in its final phase. US servicemen are visible near the frontlines advising the Iraqis as they advance into the last handful of districts controlled by Islamic State, facing a barrage of suicide car bombs and sniper fire.
Browning, a battalion commander from the 82nd Airborne Division, is one of more than 5,000 US service members currently deployed in Iraq to “advise and assist” security forces that collapsed when Islamic State overran Mosul nearly three summers ago. It is a much smaller footprint than the 170,000 troops deployed at the height of the nine-year occupation that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, during which more than 4,000 American soldiers were killed.