As evening approaches in Iraq’s northern city of Irbil, TV presenter Bakr Mahmoud Mahdi prepares to go live with a show called “Freedom Studio,” which he says allows victims of war to vent. His callers — and there have been fewer of them lately — are civilians living inside the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest, and describing what life is like under the rule of the Islamic State group. On a recent broadcast, a woman who identified herself as Umm Nour called in from Mosul. “God willing there isn’t a lot left and I hope that the watchers can pray for those inside Mosul to overcome Daesh,” she said, using the Arabic-language acronym for the IS group.
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Most of the other callers dial in to complain about life under IS rule, Mahdi says. “There is a crisis in terms of food supply, there is a fuel crisis and there is a crisis in the inhumane way the Daesh thugs treat the people of Mosul,” he said.
Multiple call-in shows like Mahdi’s have been providing a rare line of communication for some of the estimated 1 million people still living in the Islamic State group’s last urban bastion in Iraq. Now as Iraqi forces push closer and the militants begin enforcing a ban on phones and the internet, those voices from inside Mosul are starting to fall silent.
“This program is like a breath of fresh air for the families of Nineveh,” he said, referring to the province that contains Mosul. “Through it they can call and through it the families who are trapped in Nineveh can give news to those who are displaced and vice versa.” The show’s channel, the private Nineveh TV, opened in 2013 and has been airing several such shows per day. Mahdi said his broadcasts can also be viewed inside Mosul, giving residents a taste of the outside world.
Mahdi usually goes from one phone call to another very quickly, giving words of encouragement to those calling in. On average he gets about 90 calls during each two-hour show. Mahdi, who is from Ramadi, said he can empathize with the caller’s struggles since he has been through it himself in his own city. Ramadi was freed from IS militants earlier in the year.
While the show receives callers from inside Mosul, those numbers have started to drop because of harsh punishment by IS. On a recent day, most callers were displaced people from Mosul who wanted to send messages of hope to those trapped in the city. There was also a lot of praise for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. One displaced resident, identifying himself as Salah, said he wanted to send a message to his family still there. “I want to tell the families in Nineveh that we are coming to save you from these Daesh thugs,” he said. “We are fighting against criminals. We are coming for you.”
Mosul has been under IS rule for more than two years. The fight to retake it is expected to be the most complex yet for Iraq’s military. As paranoia spreads among IS fighters holding out inside the city and facing an all-out assault backed by sophisticated U.S. weaponry, Mahdi said they have begun to severely punish anyone found to have a cell phone or internet connection, seeing them as possibly colluding with the enemy.
The battle picked up momentum over the weekend, with state-sanctioned Shiite militias joining the offensive to the west of the city as part of a plan to encircle the area and cut supply lines from neighboring Syria. Meanwhile, other Iraqi forces, aided by U.S.-led airstrikes and heavy artillery, drove IS from the town of Shura, south of Mosul, where the militants had rounded up civilians to be used as human shields.
Two weeks into the offensive, most of the fighting is still taking place in towns and villages far from Mosul’s outskirts. With the entire operation expected to take weeks, if not months, thirst for news from inside the city continues to grow. Another caller, Abu Barek, urged his family to be patient. “If you hear my voice, there is not a lot left. Please stay home until freedom comes.”