MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - The leaflet dropped from the skies over Mosul urged Islamic State militants to give themselves up. “Who will look after your families if you are killed?” read the message, found on the ground in an apartment complex on the city’s northern edge.
Sent by the Iraqi government, it appears to have been ignored.
At the bottom of a stairwell in one of the apartment blocks lay the corpses of three militants who must have known they would lose against the overwhelming numbers and firepower of their opponents.
Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition took the Hadba apartment complex several days ago as the campaign to drive Islamic State out of Mosul gains momentum in the city’s east.
A tour arranged for Reuters to show off the government forces’ latest gains showed how the militants, though vastly outnumbered and overpowered, are still putting up a fight for their largest urban stronghold.
Beneath blankets thrown over their remains, the militants appear to have fought on even after being gravely wounded.
One had a makeshift splint on his leg, and a big skidmark of blood indicated a militant may have dragged himself into cover, or been pulled by the others.
The lower half of one insurgent’s body was blown off before he had a chance to detonate the suicide belt still tied around his waist.
“We came from here and hit him with a rocket,” said an Iraqi soldier, retracing his steps through the outdoor passage they used to come up on the militants from behind.
The complex is made up of more than 160 blocks — the three-storey buildings now giving Iraqi forces an added advantage over the enemy, which is being pushed back towards the Tigris river bisecting Mosul from north to south.
Some Iraqi units further south reached the banks of the Tigris over the weekend — a milestone in the offensive that began when the elite counterterrorism service (CTS) pushed into Mosul from the east in October.
The western half of the city remains fully under Islamic State control and retaking it from Islamic State is likely to be complicated by narrow alleys.
The pastel-colored apartment blocks show marks of heavy fighting and the sound of gunfire was audible nearby.
Spirits were high among the soldiers, who broke into song and dance for the camera, and posed for photographs with Islamic State flags they had torn down.
Victory in Mosul would deal a symbolic and perhaps lethal blow to Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate.
But the group has recently demonstrated the insurgent tactics to which it will likely revert as it loses territory. Dozens of civilians have been killed in bomb blasts in Baghdad since the start of the year and the militants have attacked security forces in areas retaken from them.
Touring the compound, Major-General Najm al-Jubbouri said Islamic State had hit back with four to five car bombs during and after the battle, but they were detonated before hitting their target.
Islamic State newsletters were scattered on the ground outside the entrance to the mosque inside the compound, hailing attacks carried out by its fighters against Iraqi forces.
A ground floor apartment served as a real estate office for Islamic State, which rented out the apartments of those who fled to people displaced from other parts of Mosul or beyond during the two years they ruled over the city.
Another Islamic State flyer warned civilians against informing the security forces about the location of militants.
All civilians were evacuated during and after the battle and government soldiers now appear in the windows of their apartments.
Sheets are stretched across the balconies — in some cases for privacy, but also so that Islamic State snipers could see Iraqi forces without being spotted.
“Some of the doors were rigged with trip wires,” said the head of one of the battalions that retook the apartments, whose name, Colonel Ibrahim, has been graffitied on the walls by his men.
He said his men had broken into one apartment and found a discarded suicide belt and a cup of tea, still steaming hot, suggesting at least one of the militants chose to flee rather than fight on.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall