Iraqi special forces claim that eastern Mosul is safe for residents to return. However, suicide attacks tell a different story. Now, those forces are preparing to "liberate" western Mosul, as Anna Lekas Miller reports.
Up until three weeks ago, Mohamed's neighborhood in eastern Mosul was under the control of the "Islamic State" (IS) group."Look," he says, his hands shaking. "They even broke my fingers."
During its two-and-a-half-year rule, the terrorist group enforced a strict interpretation of Shariah law, that criminalized actions normally permitted under Islam, such as smoking cigarettes, or listening to music. Those who did not comply faced anything from steep fines to public lashings or executions.
"I was buying new clothes for my daughters, for Eid," Mohamed tells DW, clutching his two daughters, six-year-old Dalia and eight-year-old Rawan close to him in the doorway of their home on a street in front of the majestic Grande Mosque of Mosul.
"We just wanted to celebrate the holiday in a nice way, with new things," he continued. "But I made the mistake of going out with my cigarettes in my pocket."
On his way home, he was stopped by two IS fighters, who asked him for his identity card. When he reached for the card, the pack of cigarettes tumbled out of his pocket, and onto the floor.
"Immediately they took me and hit my hands until they were broken and bleeding," he says, revealing his middle fingers on both hands, both disjointed pieces of evidence of the punishment that IS inflicts upon those caught smoking or breaking other laws.
While most of Mohamed's neighborhood is still abandoned - many of his neighbors fled to other areas or refugee camps when the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) advanced on IS positions just a few weeks ago - cautious signs of life are slowly returning. Birds are chirping and rays of sun flood through the windows of the Grande Mosque, which was once home to stock piles of weapons and IS snipers in its minarets. A child skates on a hover board between two bombed out skeletons of cars, targets of IS bombs that must have exploded only a few weeks before.
"We are hopeful we can start our lives again," Mohamed continues in a mixture of English and Arabic. "I'm so happy I can start thinking about sending my daughters back to school."
Liberated, but still not safe
However, not all neighborhoods have been liberated - and the ones that are aren't necessarily safe. On the other side of the Tigris River, an estimated 700,000 civilians are still living under IS rule in the western part of the city. After a grueling three months of pushing IS forces west out of Iraq and toward Raqqa in Syria, the ISOF are planning their strategies for the next phase of the battle, due to begin in the coming days.
"Now we know their strategy," Iraqi Special Operations Forces Major Ra'ed al-Rohn says, overlooking the recently liberated neighborhood.
"We learned from our mistakes, and are ready for the coming fight," he tells DW.
While the first phase of the battle took several weeks longer than expected, Major al-Rohn is confident that despite challenges poised by the terrain, the second half of the battle is more likely to go according to plan.
"Geographically, the west side will be much more difficult," the commander admits. "There are narrow streets and older buildings. We won't be able to use our Humvee vehicles, and will need to fight on the streets as guerrilla fighters."
Still, he argues that most of the IS' military strength - an abundance of factories manufacturing car bombs and suicide vests to secret caches of weapons - was located in the eastern part of the city. That, he says, means that they are less equipped to defend the western half.
"Most of their facilities were located in the eastern side of the city," he continues. "They have lost a lot of their most important leaders, and their morale is low."
Still plenty to do
Nevertheless, IS is still making its presence known in the purportedly liberated areas of eastern Mosul. Just last week, the recently re-opened and popular restaurant My Fair Lady - frequented by Iraqi Special Operations soldiers - was targeted in a suicide bomb attacker that killed 10 and wounded 33 people. Drone attacks, sniper fire, and even mortar fire are becoming increasingly common in liberated areas, as the onset of the battle for the western side of the city approaches.
"It's a big problem," the commander admits, before changing the subject back to the upcoming fight. "But we need to focus on our own morale - especially since the morale of the enemy is low."
While he knows the fight for Mosul is far from over, when Major al-Rohn sees civilian life coming back to stretches of liberated neighborhoods he feels proud of what he and his unit have been able to contribute toward liberating Mosul.
"It's a gift for all families of our martyrs," he says, looking around the liberated area. "Their blood was not for nothing."