SOFREP reached out to several sources on the ground near Mosul, including a Kurdish intelligence officer involved in the battle against ISIS for Iraq’s second largest city. Predominately a Sunni city, Mosul was the home to about a million residents, after nearly half a million fled when ISIS took over in 2014. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the American military struggled to pacify Mosul, a city rife with corruption and foreign fighters who traveled to Iraq for jihad. After well over a year of being hyped in the press and by both local and coalition governments, the battle kicked off this week for control over the last real ISIS stronghold in Iraq.

So far, the Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga have recaptured about 20 villages on the outskirts of Mosul and have moved within 29 kilometers of the city center. The Kurdish intelligence officer described three main challenges in the battle thus far:

  1. The visual screen created by tire and oil fires lit by ISIS, which can also make airstrikes difficult.
  2. The ISIS trademark tactic of using suicide bombers driving trucks filled to the brim with explosives into Kurdish lines.
  3. Extremely difficult and dangerous fighting underground.

The fires are nothing particularly new, as both ISIS and Saddam’s army employed this tactic in the past. The SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) have been a vexing issue throughout the conflict, as ISIS typically opens their offensives with a number of these strikes before sending in dismounted personnel to assault Kurdish positions. However, the coalition has been provided anti-tank weapons, which have proven a tremendous help, although most of the Peshmerga casualties are still happening because of this difficult-to-counter tactic.

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Tunneling underground is also something that ISIS has done in the past in places like Sinjar. The tactic is usually employed by guerrilla forces who are unable to match the air power of their stronger enemies. The Peshmerga are having to clear these tunnels as they are discovered in the course of house-to-house fighting, all with the standard AK-47 rifle. Thermobarics could be a huge help for defeating ISIS terrorists taking refuge underground, if the coalition provides them.

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“Some of tunnels lead out to villages, 500 to 1,000 meters [long], and local people dig them,” the Peshmerga source said. He also provided a number of pictures. According to him, the local Iraqis had been press-ganged into service to dig the tunnels for ISIS.

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In reaction to the Peshmerga assault on Mosul, ISIS launched a diversionary attack against the Kurdish city of Kirkuk, deploying over 100 jihadis from Hawija. ISIS attacked a power plant and police stations, and created terror throughout the city. The tactic worked, as the PUK (the political party in control of Kirkuk) had to divert their Peshmerga from Mosul to Kirkuk. The Peshmerga and the intelligence branch’s elite Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) have been clearing the city, but a large number of ISIS fighters are thought to be hiding in the homes of Arab residents.

Back at Mosul, the Peshmerga believe that it will take five to six months to rid the city of ISIS.