When Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi signaled the launch of the offensive to regain Mosul, the last and largest Iraqi city held by the terrorist militant group Daesh on October 16, Iraq’s military general involved in the operation were fairly optimistic.
They did not expect the battle to drag on, and anticipated that liberating the eastern part of the city would not take more than a few weeks as their forces enjoyed a wide scale of air and artillery backup; not to forget that they had achieved the goals of the first stage of the operation in a very short period of time.
What supported their idea of a swift operation was the fall of dozens of towns and villages around Mosul in a very short time. As the fighting progressed, new impediments surfaced, and with over seven weeks of fighting on the outskirts of Mosul, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism troops and the elite Special Forces units—the troops exclusively assigned to fight inside Mosul—backed by the U.S.-led military coalition, barely liberated six neighborhoods. As of last November, tens of neighborhoods have been liberated from Daesh’s hands, while dozens more are still witnessing tense fighting as the battle for Mosul has moved from a town-to-town fight into a street-to-street fight, slowed down by many factors.
In addition to the 700,000 civilians whom Daesh is using as human shields, snipers and suicide bombers making use of complicated underground tunnels have become yet another burden, which the Iraqi Army and its allies must tackle.
Two days after the battle for Mosul began, the Iraqi security forces and their allies discovered a complex network of underground tunnels. The narrow tunnels with their multiple entrance and exit points extended under the village and had connected several houses. Since then, the troops taking part in the offensive have announced the discovery of dozens of tunnels in the liberated areas, almost on a daily basis.
“The underground tunnels, which we have discovered in [the eastern outskirts of] Mosul were not similar to those found elsewhere,” Lieutenant General Abdulwahab Al Saaidi, the commander of the Counter-Terrorism troops fighting in Mosul tells Newsweek Middle East.
The lieutenant general, who is based in eastern Mosul, reveals: “There were tunnels in Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit and Baiji, but they were not like these [the ones discovered in Mosul]. The Mosul tunnels are different in size, depth, width and arrangements.” He adds: “They are very well organized.”
Iraqi military officials involved in the battles to retake Mosul say the total length of the revealed underground tunnel so far in the liberated neighborhoods has reached 15 kilometers, and the expected length of the tunnels in the eastern part of the city is estimated at around 70 km. The Iraqi and international coalition air forces have been bombarding three to five tunnels daily, according to military sources.
Daesh had seized Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city in terms of population, in June 2014 after the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi Army in what has been regarded as the biggest scandal in Iraq’s recent history.
Mosul is also one of the oldest cities in the country and it harbors dozens of archeological sites, most of which Daesh destroyed after looting and smuggling the precious pieces out of the city and the country through the underground tunnels.
Many of the tunnels discovered extend all the way to the hills, where the ancient sites are located in and around Mosul, according to several residents whom Newsweek Middle East has been in contact with since the fall of the city into Daesh’s hands.
That was the first use of the tunnels in Mosul but not the last.
“They [Daesh] have been digging tunnels over the past two years. All the people here say that from time to time, they felt the ground shaking and thought it was an earthquake,” Rachel, a resident still inside Mosul tells Newsweek Middle East by phone.
“After we heard the news about the tunnels, everyone now expects that a Daeshi [Daesh fighter] may pop out from inside the bedroom,” she adds.
On November 14, an elite special unit was inspecting the houses in Bou Awyza village in northern Mosul after they liberated it, when all of a sudden they came under attack by several suicide bombers and snipers from behind.
The assailants appeared from nowhere and were positioned in very strategic sites. That day was bloody for the Iraqi troops as they lost many soldiers, while the rest were forced to retreat and leave the neighborhood. Hours later, the military command of Nineveh operations issued new instructions for all involved troops “to modify their tactics” to deal with the “new factor,” that is, the underground tunnels.
Two Iraqi military sources speaking on the condition of anonymity have confirmed the news to Newsweek Middle East.
Despite the fact that the Iraqi security forces and its allies have liberated around 40 percent of Nineveh territories in the last seven weeks, the new circumstances suggest that the battle will last for months and any attempt to accelerate the rhythm of the Iraqi security forces’ advance will be at high price, be it among the civilians or the troops.
Several military sources have revealed to Newsweek Middle East that the causalities among the Iraqi troops fighting in Mosul have been on the rise of late, due to suicide attacks and snipers from beneath, lurking in the underground tunnels.
“The battle has become much more complicated and difficult as the air support, artillery and tanks are rendered useless,” one military officer tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Now, we are fighting man to man most of the time, and in this kind of fighting, Daesh [fighters] are superior,” he adds.
The underground tunnels were used for the first time by the Vietcong troops in Vietnam as a tactic in their war against the French forces in the 1940s. Radical groups such as Al Qaeda, as well as Taliban fighters, have been using the same tactic against the U.S. troops in Afghanistan for decades.
Nowadays, Al Qaeda’s offshoot Daesh combatants have been widely relying on the underground tunnels in Iraq and Syria to neutralize the air strikes against them.
“It’s a new tactic used by Daesh. They did not rely on it [in their defense] in Fallujah and Ramadi,” Hisham Al Hashimi, an Iraqi expert on radical Islamic groups tells Newsweek Middle East.
Al Hashimi further asserts what the military commanders have revealed: The rhythm of the fight has slowed down for three reasons.
According to Al Hashimi, there is the dense population which limits the role of the air support and artillery; the underground tunnels used widely by Daesh snipers and suicide bombers; and finally, suicide car bombs.
“Daesh does not use the tunnels during daylight to avoid spies detecting them,” says Hashimi.
“They rely on suicide car bombs to attack the Iraqi troops during the day time and the suicide bombers and snipers hidden in the tunnels at night.”
The battle to regain Mosul and the surrounding areas has further revealed four types of tunnels. The short, wide, deep and well equipped tunnels usually located under the hospitals, schools, mosques and churches are used as headquarters of commands and control.
“They [Daesh] commanders knew that the international coalition air forces will not bombard these sites, so they use them,” Hashimi explains.
The narrow tunnels extending hundreds of meters in length with many upper holes, usually tying houses together with their exits and entrances are located inside these houses. They have their surface holes well camouflaged, to be used as hunting sites.
“Daesh has settled its BKC [also known as PKM, a light machine gun] or a sniper in every hole, so they can use them effectively to attack the troops,” a senior Iraqi security official tells Newsweek Middle East. “They have been attacking our troops from the sides and behind from these tunnels,” the official, adds.
The third kind of tunnel discovered is used as an arsenal storage, while the fourth kind is used as prison cells to hide important hostages such as journalists and foreigners, as Daesh commonly uses them as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the international community in exchange for financial benefits. Both types are usually located in very safe areas and only a few people can reach them.
So far, nearly half of the 600 suicide car bomb attacks against Iraqi troops and allies in eastern Mosul have taken place in the last five weeks.
“We will face a delay inside the city for sure…we need time,” Lt. Gen. Saaidi, says.
“According to the military calculations, this is not considered a slowdown. If we advance 500 meters on a daily basis inside the city, this would be acceptable,” he adds.
Furthermore, Saaidi did not deny news that his troops have been suffering from the higher frequency of attacks via car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers.
Yet, he maintains that his units’ causalities are still “acceptable.”
“If our causalities are not acceptable, we would not be able to maintain the momentum of the battle,” Saaidi says.