By Khalid al-Taie
Displaced Iraqi children, who fled the violence in the northern city of Mosul, stand behind a fence at the Hasan Sham camp on March 26, 2017, in the village of Hasan Sham, some 30 kilometres east of Mosul. [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]
Al-Yarmuk resident Yassine Khalil and his family of five were almost killed when "Islamic State" (IS) fighters stormed into their home in early April, during the battle to liberate their neighbourhood in west Mosul, Iraq.
As the battle raged outside, three IS fighters stormed into the house and ordered the family to leave, Khalil, 35, recounted.
"When we stepped out, we were terrified and were sure we would die," he said.
"But at that moment, the bullets stopped and we managed to escape and reach the security forces," he said. "I cannot believe that we are still alive."
Actions such as these reveal IS's plan to use civilians as human shields or bait to hinder the advance of Iraqi armed forces, especially now that the area still under IS control in Mosul has shrunk to just 10% of the total area of the city.
"Hiding behind women and children reflects [IS's] cowardice and how it does not value human life," Iraqi forces spokesman Sabah al-Numan told Diyaruna.
The group has exploited civilians in numerous ways, he said, which include forcing entire families to move with them from one house to another or through alleyways so the Iraqi forces will hold their fire.
This tactic allows the group's fighters to move freely through the city, he said.
The group also has been known to detain a large number of families in one place, which it then uses as a base for its fighters, he said, or to use the rooftops of private homes as sniper positions.
IS also has resorted to using civilians as bait, he said, by pushing them into a battle and then opening fire as soon as the Iraqi forces approach.
"Survivors of this method reported that terrorists told them they would be killed and die as martyrs and that heaven awaits them, which reflects the idiocy of their ideology," al-Numan said.
"We have to exercise the utmost caution and concentration," he added, noting that Iraqi forces have liberated the majority of Mosul's neighbourhoods to date "and have helped save many innocent civilians that IS used as human shields, including children”.
"Our men now have enough experience to free hostages and trapped civilians, as well as open safe passageways for fleeing civilians and keep them away from terrorists," he said.
Intelligence information provided by civilians also has helped hinder IS activities, he added.
IS fighters are now trapped in a small area of Mosul, but fighting there is very difficult, with thousands of families living in crowded houses.
By using civilians to obstruct the army’s advance, IS hopes this will give it time to regroup, Ninawa provincial council security committee chairman Mohammed Ibrahim told Diyaruna.
Its fighters are now taking cover behind the residents of Mosul's Old City, he added, taking advantage of the dense population of that area.
IS has been forcing families, including women and children, to leave their homes, he said, and they are now being held hostage inside the courtyard of al-Nouri mosque to prevent the military from storming that location.
The group is fighting fiercely to maintain control of the mosque, located in the centre of the old city, as this is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance after the group overran Mosul in the summer of 2014.
This is where al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate, so it has special significance for IS, Ibrahim said.
Ninawa provincial council human rights committee chairman Ghazwan Hamed told Diyaruna IS is trying to complicate the humanitarian situation even more as the fighting enters residential areas in the Old City.
"The heavily populated neighbourhoods are the last card for the terrorists to play," he said. "We expect they will commit massacres and blame the security forces in an attempt to mislead public opinion and influence the course of the fighting."
Iraqi forces have gained experience in urban combat, however, and will try to avoid any civilian casualties even if that means victory comes slower, he said.
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