Text by RUKMINI CALLIMACHI – The New York Times
Ms. Callimachi, a Times correspondent who reports on jihadist groups, is in Iraq to cover the battle against the Islamic State.
MOSUL, Iraq — The last time I was in Iraq, two months ago, I stood next to the highway out of the city of Mosul and watched ambulances screaming by, carrying dead and wounded soldiers.
During my reporting in Mosul this week, the picture couldn’t have looked more different in the eastern half of the city, which was recently taken back by government forces. Even in places where soldiers were still partly on edge — like above, patrolling along the banks of the Tigris River near the front line with the Islamic State — I still was able to walk alongside them.
Driving on Thursday evening near the sprawling Nineveh International Hotel, in the northern part of the city, the streets were busy with civilian traffic, joined occasionally by an Iraqi armored vehicle.
As we drove through recently liberated areas of the city, signs of the Islamic State’s occupation were everywhere. At one intersection in Al Qusoor district, a mural of the Colosseum is painted on a wall. The painted slogan repeats Islamic State’s imperial promise to its followers that it will conquer Rome — a line from the prophetic texts that animate their movement.
We easily found one of the group’s abandoned weapons factories — one of many that has been discovered in the city. Racks of mortar shells, more than a hundred in all, were stacked in neat rows. Spray-painted on the wall next to them is a memorial: “Abu Baraa al-Ansari, conqueror of the Shia.”
Beyond the signs of the jihadists’ rule, what stunned me is how quickly life has returned. A vegetable seller tended a pyramid of tomatoes. Women hailed taxis on the side of the road. A girl with blue bows in her hair played in the street with her brother.
Heading out of the city, we drove past open, and full, kebab joints, their fluorescent lights beaming out onto the street.
Craters left by airstrikes scar the streets, and some buildings have been flattened. But far more are still standing.
The retaking of the eastern side has been time-consuming for just this reason — Iraqi forces had asked civilians to stay home rather than trying to flee. And for the most part, the soldiers have taken care to clear each block while trying to preserve infrastructure.
That is a sharp contrast — and almost certainly a more sustainable approach — than the scorched earth tactics used in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province, or farther north in the city of Sinjar. Buildings that were still standing in Sinjar were scarred by machine gun fire, like in this image, which I took the day the city was freed in 2015.
Still, the fight for the whole city is far from over. The older parts of Mosul, west of the Tigris, are much more dense than the east. The battles to clear the parts of the city I saw today and the day before took months. The toughest part may still lie ahead.
Follow Rukmini Callimachi on Twitter @rcallimachi.