In the battle against the Islamic State for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, there is no continuous front line, but a patchwork of battlegrounds in the city and all around its edge.
When the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, retreats from a position, it tries to leave as much damage behind as possible, including burning oil field wells to provide concealment ahead of a government advance. Snipers are also in place, ready to strike.
A village or neighborhood that is retaken by government troops could soon be flooded again with extremist fighters, who are rarely far away.
I recently spent three weeks in this volatile zone, first with the Iraqi Army in eastern Mosul and then, after setbacks for the army, whose block-by-block battle of attrition was not going the way it had hoped, with units of the Iraqi federal police.
The police, traveling in armored vehicles, are playing a significant role in the battle for Mosul, sometimes supporting the army. They are also responsible for holding their own territory around the city.
The police have been tasked with maintaining areas of the front line; nearby, ISIS fighters are ready and in position.
When holding ground and not on an advance, the two sides intermittently exchange rifle and mortar fire, low-level shows of force that tend to harass more than inflict serious casualties.
For the two days I was embedded with the police, they had been ordered to pause in their advance. So for the most part, they were left to wait along a muddy front until the next push forward.
For the civilians trapped by the fighting, life is bleak, and most are desperate to leave. Areas along the contested front have no water, no electricity and no way for people to obtain basic supplies.
Those trapped by the fighting and those who return hoping to restart their lives — or at least to recover some belongings — are at risk of being caught in the cross-fire, and injuries and deaths among civilians are increasing.
When government forces liberate an area, most civilians act quickly to try to evacuate. However, the Islamic State appears eager to keep as many civilians as possible in the urban center, using them as shields against aggressive bombing campaigns by the government and coalition forces. Anyone seen fleeing risks a sniper attack. Government troops sometimes escort families to safety, urging them to hurry through streets that offer little cover.
Once civilians reach a safe zone, a more organized system is in place to transport them in buses and on the backs of trucks to camps for displaced people. On the way, they receive donations of food and water.
Iraqi forces have been told to destroy evidence of the Islamic State after retaking an area, but signs of its control can sometimes be difficult to efface.
Coalition F-16 bombings destroyed an Islamic State training base in a former agricultural college in the town of Hamam Alil, below. But ISIS writing, which states the name of a unit, remains visible on the wall.
Residents, like the women below in the town of Bashiqa, are starting to return to areas recently freed from the Islamic State to learn what became of their homes and to gather the few belongings that have not been looted or destroyed.
The woman below was recovering a wedding photo from the rubble in Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. The town, famous for its olive groves, was once a popular day trip destination from the city and had a large population of Yazidis.
The Islamic State’s control of Mosul and the nearby area separated families for long stretches. The relatives below, reunited on the side of the road, had not seen one another in two years.
The battle for Mosul has forced many tens of thousands from their homes, and displaced people are a common sight along the roads across the city.
Early in my assignment, I accompanied the Iraqi Army to this neighborhood below, which is in the eastern part of Mosul, where civilians dared to venture outside as government troops patrolled.
But just a few hours after this photo was taken, Islamic State fighters attacked an Iraqi Army field base nearby, killing soldiers, destroying their armored vehicles and almost immediately posting a YouTube video triumphantly showing their accomplishment.
After that, access for photographers was severely curtailed by the army, and journalists quickly went from having a front-row seat to this very critical battle to struggling to get any information at all.
Ambulances carrying those gravely injured from sniper fire, artillery, mortars and mines are driven out of Mosul in a steady flow en route to hospitals in nearby Erbil. When fighting is heavy, dozens of injured people arrive at the hospitals every hour.
Field hospitals inside Mosul have few supplies, so victims must be evacuated to where they can be treated. Some do not survive the journey.
The emergency vehicles offered me one of the most reliable indications of how the battle was going, and a chance to document the results.
The government has been trying to consolidate its gains, first in the outer provincial villages, and now in suburbs and city districts ever closer to the city center.
But the Islamic State had a long time to prepare for this battle, and its fighters are skilled and dug-in, taking full advantage of their underground network of tunnels throughout the region.
A long and difficult fight lies ahead for Iraqi forces trying to liberate Mosul, like this lone federal policeman on a still very dangerous and shifting front line.
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