The Iraqi police interrogator paced back and forth, towering over a dozen men from Mosul who were crouching in the dirt after escaping an area of the city recently recovered from Islamic State. “The security forces are now going to liberate your city. How is it possible that you don’t know who those rats are?” First Lieutenant Qaisar Mohammed asked the men in the village of Kokjali on Friday, demanding names and phone numbers of the jihadists controlling the rest of Mosul.
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Government forces are relying on intelligence from evacuees and sources still inside the city in their campaign to recapture Mosul from Islamic State, which seized a third of the country in 2014. Authorities are also keen to screen people leaving the city to prevent fighters from slipping through front lines in disguise and going underground to resume their insurgency. Twenty five-year old Najah, who had left his home in Mosul hours earlier, acknowledged that he knows some neighbours who were with Islamic State.
But he says his information is limited because the militants kept changing houses and instilled such fear in ordinary people that nobody dared spend much time with them or ask too many questions. More than 45,000 civilians have fled their homes since the Mosul operation began less than a month ago, a fraction of the 1 million people the United Nations has warned could eventually evacuate the city. Mohammed, who previously worked in a western Mosul district that was a hotbed for Islamic State’s al Qaeda predecessor, told Reuters that most residents cooperated with the authorities. Some have been less forthcoming.
“After two years under Daesh (Islamic State), they have terror in their hearts,” he said. “Their reaction is fear. They think maybe the Iraqi forces cannot liberate Mosul and then they will return. That is how they think.” The Iraqi operation, involving a 100,000-strong alliance of troops, security forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite militias, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, is doing everything it can to make sure that doesn’t happen, but so far it has gained just a small foothold in the city.
FLEEING FROM MORTARS
The checkpoint in Kokjali, manned by counter-terrorism forces and local police, is the first stop for residents leaving eastern Mosul. Vehicles packed with civilians stop for a brief weapons check before continuing towards Kurdish-controlled areas. Tears streamed down the face of a woman in one car, betraying the mixture of fear and relief expressed by many. Those who arrive at Kokjali on foot are sometimes questioned by police while they wait for government buses. They are then taken to another checkpoint where their names are entered into a database and checked against lists of Islamic State suspects.
People who are cleared head mostly to camps, while others are held for further questioning. Mohammed’s checkpoint is more than a kilometre from the front line inside Mosul, but it is far from safe. Earlier this week, an Islamic State fighter slipped among civilians at a similar site north of Mosul and blew himself up, he said. A few days later, a person wearing a black face veil and carrying a child did the same on the southeastern front.
Along with such suicide attacks, the retreating jihadists have begun bombarding heavily populated civilian areas with mortars. A 54-year-old man from the Zahra district of the city said he had escaped with his two sons after a hellish night. Islamic State had launched shells randomly, he said, and laid down gunfire so heavy “it was like it was raining”.