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Iraqi forces and rescue crews in Mosul look to save civilians and pull bodies from the rubble

Iraqi troops pull bodies from the rubble of Mosul as the last remaining Islamic State fighters put up a furious fight to the finish.

The Iraqi rescue worker had been waiting for hours to reach a family trapped in a house down the street from him in war-torn Mosul.

But the fighting Monday between government forces and Islamic State extremists was too intense in this ravaged corner of the Old City quarter. The military commanders at least for a while could not give the all clear.

Civilians who were trapped under debris or hiding to avoid being shot had to stay put in the more than 100 degree weather.

“Two of the special forces guys tried to go ahead and clear the path so we could rescue the civilians, but an Islamic State sniper shot them. At least one of them was martyred, I think,” said the rescue worker, Rabbii Ibrahim, compulsively drawing on a cigarette as he stared at the street.

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Ibrahim and his crew carry no weapons, and though they are often on the front line against Islamic State militants, they aren’t soldiers.

As trained rescue workers from Iraq’s civil defense forces, they are charged with evacuating civilians trapped in neighborhoods that have become vicious battlefields.

Their work, already difficult, turned into an almost impossible task as the fight shifted to the claustrophobic confines of the Old City quarter. There, the extremists made a stand against Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition that on Monday pushed them into a tiny shard of territory on the Tigris River.

As dusk came to the Old City, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi declared victory “over darkness, over brutality and terrorism” in a speech at the district’s edge. A day earlier, Abadi had gone to Mosul to congratulate the country’s armed forces as they were on the verge of defeating Islamic State militants who had once controlled the city.

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Rubble in the Old City of Mosul

A member of the Iraqi forces in the Old City of Mosul on Monday.

(Fadel Senna / AFP/Getty Images)

The coalition released a statement congratulating Iraqi security forces on their “remarkable progress against ISIS while making extraordinary efforts to safeguard civilian lives.”

Islamic State is alternatively known as ISIS, ISIL or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.

“While there are still areas of the Old City of Mosul that must be back-cleared of explosive devices and possible ISIS fighters in hiding,” the statement said, Iraqi security forces had Mosul “firmly under their control.”

The Trump administration praised Iraq and vowed to continue to seek the destruction of Islamic State, saying the group’s days in Iraq and Syria are numbered.

“We congratulate Prime Minister Abadi, the Iraqi security forces, and all the Iraqis for their victory over terrorists who are the enemies of all civilized people,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “We mourn the thousands of Iraqis brutally killed by ISIS, and the millions of Iraqis who suffered at the hands of ISIS.”

Standing in the center of a tableau of troops arrayed with flags on top of Humvees, Abadi announced the “failure and collapse of ‘Dawlat al Khurafa,’” the “fantasy state,” in a mocking reference to the self-declared caliphate the militants had created here three years ago.

“Just as we were united in fighting and destroying Daesh,” he said, “we must unite to restore stability in these areas and the return of refugees and restoring services.”

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Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.2 million.

On Monday, hundreds of civilians, who officials surmised were mostly the families of Islamic State fighters, cowered with the fierce fighting happening only yards away.

Ibrahim and his men stayed close to the commanders, ready to spring to action the moment they could reach residents.

“One girl has her leg trapped under a piece of fallen cement. She’s been in the sun for two days,” said Commissioner Daoud Mahmoud, also with the civil defense force. He added that, with temperatures reaching 113 degrees, four days was the longest people could be expected to survive.

Soldiers were shot, he said, when one of them tried to throw a bottle of water to the girl.

“We need to go forward,” said Mahmoud, “but they can’t secure the road for us. Our priority here is to reach the children and the women.”

Lt. Col. Salam Obaidi, a battalion commander with the Counter-Terrorism Service, said in an interview near the front line that his men had already rescued seven families during the day but that the fighting was preventing more rescues.

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As he spoke, a thin, taciturn man who identified himself as a physician named Mohammad (he gave only his first name for reasons of privacy) pleaded with Obaidi to let him check on his house where some of his relatives had been hiding.

“I just need to see if there’s anyone alive,” said Mohammad. Obaidi replied that “the house you’re talking about collapsed to the ground,” but he later sent the doctor with a soldier escort.

The civil defense force often receives word of civilians in combat areas by telephone, Ibrahim said.

Residents call a central emergency line, and are then connected to speak to Ibrahim directly. He takes down their location and relays it to Iraqi troops who coordinate airstrikes with the coalition.

They in turn determine the GPS coordinates where the civilians are hiding, and inform the attacking forces so as to ensure no attacks are conducted on the site.

“The other day we ... communicated with Lt. Col. Salam and rescued a group of old women,” Ibrahim said. “They were almost unconscious when we reached them. One more day and that would have been it.”

The battle in the Old City, whose frail structures were defended by hundreds of militants among the estimated 100,000-150,000 residents in the district, reduced large areas to hills of rubble — with many of the inhabitants buried in a grave of disintegrating masonry and rebar.

Walking through what has essentially become a wasteland, the smell of rotten flesh signals the presence of the dead long before one can see a corpse, if it can be seen at all.

It triggers the unofficial part of the civil defense force’s duties: taking out the dozens of bodies from the debris.

“We have a record of sites where there are bodies and estimates of how many there are,” Ibrahim said. He declined to provide details about the sites.

But it’s not just the close-quarters combat that has complicated the job for rescue crews. The Old City’s narrow passageways deny the civil defense force essential tools they need to clear the detritus.

“Our bulldozers, diggers, large cranes … they’re too big to go through,” Ibrahim said.

“They’re 5 yards wide and the walkways we need to get into are just over 2.”

With only 30 civil defense personnel assigned to the Old City, many of the corpses remain uncollected.

“I still have people working in other neighborhoods, with lots of bodies of Daesh fighters,” said Ibrahim, momentarily taking shelter under a balcony as a coalition bomb struck a building nearby.

“If I didn’t have people who were alive, I wouldn’t even bother to come here.”

An hour later, Mohammad returned. He had reached what remained of his house and had called to see if anyone was there. There was no response.

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @nabihbulos


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