MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Emboldened by machinegun fire on Islamic State snipers along Mosul’s frontlines, a few residents are emerging from their homes in pockets of the city where Iraqi forces have dislodged the jihadists.
In al-Zahraa in eastern Mosul, shopkeepers swept away broken glass and neighbors were starting to interact again, days after Islamic State fighters were ousted from the neighborhood. Two rabbits hopped along a sand lot as gunfire crackled nearby.
But there is still an overwhelming sense of uncertainty as parts of the sprawling city slowly come to life and Iraqi special forces press ahead with their offensive on Islamic State’s last big stronghold in Iraq.
Many residents fear that even if the entire city falls, the world’s most dangerous militant group will return one day to impose its ultra-hardline version of Islam.
“We need the army to stay here for 10 years to protect us,” sewing shop owner Omar Sibawee said as special forces on a nearby rooftop opened fire at buildings where jihadists were holed up. “We are afraid they have sleeper cells in Mosul.”
About 800 Islamic State militants swept through northern Iraq in 2014, seizing Mosul and nearby towns and villages.
Cigarettes were banned and anyone caught smoking was whipped. Women were forced to cover from head to toe. Suspected adulterers were stoned to death in public.
Iraqi forces have captured several areas of eastern Mosul during the offensive, expected to be the biggest battle in Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Just beyond Sibawee’s home is one of the spots where Islamic State beheaded people. The militants insisted the entire neighborhood — adults and children alike — gather to watch.
“They used to always slaughter the former soldiers and policemen. It was horrible to watch,” Sibawee said.
“As they sliced their heads they would tell us ‘liberate yourself from the apostates’,” he said as some his eight children played, oblivious to the sound of sniper rifles and mortar bombs.
Iraqi security forces put down their weapons and fled in the face of the Islamic State onslaught in 2014, but have made progress against the jihadists this year.
After clearing Islamic State out of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in the west, they have pushed into Mosul and seized nearby towns and villages with the help of Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shi’ite militias.
The battle could drag on for months. Western Mosul is expected to witness much tougher urban warfare, with many narrow streets and alleyways preventing movement by tanks and armored vehicles that would give Iraqi forces an edge.
Improvised explosive devices, snipers and suicide bombers are still a constant danger across much of Mosul, capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Iraqi special forces officers positioned along an abandoned market said the militants regularly attack them. A grenade recently landed on a metal rooftop above them, making dozens of holes.
“A few days ago five suicide bombers with grenades and AK-47 rifles charged us,” said Mohamed Abdel Rahman. “We shot dead four of them and one blew himself up and wounded one of us. They hit us and we hit them.”
One of the failed suicide bombers lay in the street under a thick blanket, about 50 meters (55 yards) from an Iraqi tank.
“I cut off his head,” said a special forces officer, smiling proudly. He pointed to the man’s green suicide belt placed on a table a few feet away.
A government forces’ sniper was stationed at a nearby mosque, staring across the front line at another neighborhood where special forces believe Islamic State militants are holding Iraqis as human shields.
“Every morning people try to escape and Daesh snipers shoot at them,” said one officer. Daesh is an Arabic acronym used by opponents of Islamic State to describe the group.
Every 30 minutes or so, a hidden Islamic State sniper opened fire, inviting retaliation. Mortar bombs crashed down on other parts of the city.
The clashes have devastated businesses in Mosul, once a thriving trading center.
Rayan Haithem wondered how he would ever make a living again.
“A car bomb blew up near my bakery a few days ago. It was destroyed,” he said. “We need the army to stay here and protect us so that they don’t come back.”
Mosul residents are starting to pick up the pieces.
One man tried to fix some items in his automobile repair shop, now scattered across a sand lot. An army bulldozer had pushed some of his customers’ cars beneath an earth berm to fortify frontline positions.
Children have grown numb to the violence.
A young girl named Aisha entertained herself by throwing bullet casings along an alleyway. Minutes later the exchange of fire resumed.
Editing by Timothy Heritage