MOSUL, Iraq — Yousef Ali peered through the scope of his Russian-made Dragunov sniper rifle. Through the small hole in the wall of an abandoned hotel, Ali saw the labyrinth of the Old City's narrow streets stretch before him.
Less than 300 yards away, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, prepared for another sneak attack, surrounded by civilian human shields. "The (ISIS fighters) are out there," said the 20-year-old Iraqi federal policeman, taking his eyes off the scope for a moment. "Just behind those buildings."
The police forces have had an important role to play since the start an offensive in October to drive the militants from Mosul, their last major stronghold in Iraq. For the past few months, they've gained a higher profile taking out ISIS positions in western Mosul while creating escape routes for trapped civilians in tight quarters.
The federal police, including their elite SWAT unit called the Emergency Response Division, are the Iraqi forces closest to the Old City. The police and SWAT unit will likely be the first to take the al-Nuri mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, whose capture would spell a symbolic victory over the Islamic State. It was there the head of the militant group declared a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria after invading in 2014.
Federal police, many of them young and inexperienced, have taken the brunt of the casualties during the latest offensive.
Ali said it had been his dream to become a sniper since he joined police basic training.
After 45 days of basics, he was accepted into sniper training, spending six months becoming acquainted with the specialization under Iraqi and Italian trainers in Baghdad and Fallujah. The training paid off when he was thrust into the Mosul offensive with his M-16 and Dragunov rifles, Ali said.
"Two or three days ago, (ISIS) set some fires to make a smokescreen, then some of them came at us with suicide belts," Ali said. "I killed two of them."
Ali said there is a friendly rivalry among him and his fellow snipers, who brag about how many Islamic State targets they brought down.
"We always hear everything that's going over the radio. So sometimes we'll say, 'Oh, I killed more (ISIS fighters) than you, you better try harder,'" he said. "But we all treat each other as brothers here."
Snipers are useful for more than just taking out militants from a distance. Federal police and SWAT commanders rely on them to get up-to-the-minute intelligence on enemy movements and targets for Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, said Gen. Abdul Rahman, the executive officer of the federal police.
Expanded role for Iraqi forces
In the push toward Mosul, each segment of the Iraqi forces was given a sector to capture. The federal police and SWAT positioning put them squarely on the front lines once Iraqi forces reached the western part of the city.
Unlike the army, police answer to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. But they act like soldiers with their own fleet of dark blue Humvees, weapons ranging from machine guns to rocket launchers and military training.
There are six regular police divisions, each is comprised of 11,000 personnel. Roughly 60% engage in combat. Three of the divisions are participating in the Mosul offensive. The SWAT team, which has additional urban combat training, counts as the fourth division on the front lines and often spearheads the offensive.
Their progress slowed considerably since entering the city due to hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the urban battlefield.
"Before we came to Mosul, our plan was to liberate Mosul," said Rahman. "Now it's to keep civilians safe. Now, if we liberate just 100 yards per day, we can minimize civilian casualties, so it's better to do it like that."
The fact that the police are taking a more active role in the battle than regular Iraqi troops boosts morale of many civilians who lost faith in the army. Many regular soldiers dropped their weapons and ran away when the Islamic State swept across Iraq three years ago.
"I can't believe the army is actually helping," said Zeyad Suleiman, a resident of western Mosul. The regular army is holding the northern section, slowly taking some outlying neighborhoods.
Up close with ISIS
Unlike Ali, Muntader Khazem, a sergeant with the SWAT team, regularly has to fight up close with the Islamic State as his unit drives the militants back house by house.
"We are (often) 10 yards away, with (ISIS fighters) shooting at us," said Khazem, 22. "Sometimes we go from the corner of the occupied house. Sometimes from the front or the back. Sometimes two teams attack from two sides at once."
Emergency Response Division commando Muntader Khazem stands outside the ERD field base on the edge of western Mosul's Old City. (Photo: Igor Kossov, Special for USA TODAY)
Like all SWAT commandos, Khazem was chosen out of the other federal police recruits and given extra urban warfare training by the U.S.-led coalition.
Close urban combat has an extremely high casualty rate, according to Swedish Army Sgt. Emil Andersson, who was trained in urban combat, now working as a volunteer medic near the front lines. Khazem said he was wounded many times.
"Mortars hit me all over my body, even near my penis," he said. "But even though I get injured, I always return to fight again."
Many others were not as lucky. Khazem said he lost 37 comrades in the fight against ISIS over the past two years.
The biggest challenge is rescuing civilians held hostage by the ISIS militants, he said.
"Our brothers and sisters are being used as human shields. We're going to defend our families," Khazem said. "We give our blood because we need to get our country back."