MOSUL // Soldiers occupying the elegant houses that line the edge of Mosul’s Old City lounge on mattresses in dimly lit rooms. Some sit together in spacious courtyards smoking water pipes. Others hold watch on rooftops and in doorways.
They move between buildings through holes knocked into the walls, or sprint from door-to-door across narrow passageways to avoid sniper fire.
The men, part of Iraq’s elite Emergency Response Division, form a tight cordon at the western rim of the Old City, which along with Mosul’s north-west remains under ISIL’s control.
They know that the battle ahead will be a tough one.
The insurgents have had plenty of time to build their defences, and Iraqi forces will not be able to rely on covering fire from their armoured vehicles in much of the urban maze. Explosive booby traps and suicide bombers will slow their advance, while air support and artillery fire will be limited in the densely inhabited area.
ISIL is preventing civilians from crossing the frontlines, even herding inhabitants in soon-to-be liberated areas deeper into the city to create an ever thicker human shield. The extremists shoot at anyone attempting to leave, and frequently kill men, women and children running for their lives.
"Daesh is ordering all the families to move further back into the city. They told us too, but we choose to escape," says one resident, Rayan Jasser, who managed to reach Iraqi lines with his family after ISIL fighters pulled back from his street.
Mr Jasser and his relatives – two other men, five women and a gaggle of children – were shot at several times as they rushed towards the earthen barricade erected by Iraqi forces to stop suicide car bombs. Miraculously, no one was hit, and the family was bundled into a Humvee and driven to safety.
Mr Jasser says his family had been reduced to eating only bread, devoured once or twice a day during intervals in the fighting. Once, they had to cower in a room as an insurgent came into their house to shoot at Iraqi troops.
Not everyone is as lucky.
ERD troops and the federal police that augment the special forces watched helplessly as a group of about seventy civilians came under fire when they tried to escape a few days earlier.
"We saw Daesh open fire on them. Then a car bomb exploded near them, and a child tripped the wire and set off a mine. Seven people died, two of them children," says ERD Major Mohamed Ali.
With the insurgents determined to hold Mosul’s population hostage, the number of families managing to escape the Old City has been reduced to a trickle.
"We can’t help them, and they can’t cross," says the major.
The extremists’ strategy has worked to reduce air strikes by the international coalition supporting Iraqi forces. After bombs hit buildings sheltering civilians in the city’s Mosul Al Jadida neighbourhood last month, killing dozens, coalition air strikes have dropped off significantly, says Maj Ali.
By turning Mosul into an open air prison, ISIL is not just wilfully exposing civilians to Iraqi and coalition firepower, it is also creating a humanitarian disaster.
Up to 400,000 civilians remain trapped in ISIL-held parts of the city, estimates the United Nations. Their presence slows the Iraqi military’s advance, at a time when relief is needed urgently. Mosul was cut off from the outside world soon after the campaign to liberate the city began last October, and residents in the Old City are quickly running out of the means to survive.
"There is no food to buy anymore. Families are living off the supplies they stocked up on. There is no electricity or running water, and people are getting rashes from the unclean water pumped from wells in their garden," says an elderly woman trapped in the city centre, who risks her life by relaying information to the ERD by phone.
The woman is part of a network of spies that provides information to Iraqi forces about ISIL troop strength and tactical disposition. In her neighbourhood, she has counted around fifty extremists, all of them locals from Mosul, she says. They order inhabitants not to leave their houses, threatening to kill anyone found outside.
ISIL has long enjoyed some grass roots support in Mosul, and carried out a campaign of assassinations and bombings even before taking over the city in 2014.
After chasing Iraqi security forces out of the city, the group’s ranks were filled by local residents.
These local extremists will fight to the death for every inch of ground, willing to see their city’s ancient centre go up in flames, and for its inhabitants to die amid the destruction.