The battle for western Mosul

A photographer visits the front lines as Iraqi forces fight the ISIS terror group Photographs by Emanuele Satolli
Story by Benazir Wehelie, Special to CNN

Photographer Emanuele Satolli has been covering the battle for Mosul since it first started. He recently returned as Iraqi forces work to free western neighborhoods from the deadly grip of ISIS.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on February 19 announced the launch of the operation to retake western Mosul. Using an Arabic acronym for ISIS, he called on troops “to liberate people from the oppression and terrorism of Daesh.”

Mosul fell to the terror group in June 2014, and the offensive to regain control of Iraq’s second-largest city began this past October. The eastern side of the city, which sits on the left bank of the Tigris River, was liberated in late January.

But the battle for the west likely will prove to be much tougher. Streets are narrow, and armored vehicles cannot pass through some corridors and alleyways. And it’s a more densely populated area: As many as 800,000 civilians live in western Mosul, according to the United Nations.

The east took more than three months to liberate. US officials estimate about 2,500 ISIS militants remain in the city. In mid-March, Satolli asked some people on the ground how long it would take to regain control of the west. They told him 40 days.

“I think it’s too optimistic,” the Italian photographer said. “It’s not easy to tell when they will finish. … Maybe a couple of months, but I hope less.”

What becomes of ISIS in Mosul will be significant. It is, after all, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate. Losing even more ground there would deal a major blow to the militants.

A member of the Iraqi special forces patrols a house in the al-Tayaran district of southwest Mosul, near the front lines against ISIS.

A member of the Iraqi forces is treated in a field hospital after suffering an injury to his legs in a mortar attack.

Women and children flee heavy fighting between Iraqi special forces and ISIS militants. According to the United Nations, the government reports that 180,000 civilians have fled western Mosul since the offensive began in mid-February — and there’s a possibility that an additional 320,000 would be doing the same.

Men who fled their homes wait to have their identity cards checked in the al-Akrab district. Each person’s information is checked in a database of ISIS suspects. “The Iraqi forces are trying to understand who is collaborating with ISIS or not, and so they are separating the men from the women,” Satolli said.

Civilians take part in much-needed food distribution. A main supply route has been cut since mid-November, leaving tens of thousands of people in dire need of humanitarian aid.

A member of an Iraqi special forces unit cries in front of a field hospital after his comrade was killed by an ISIS sniper. Civilians who decide to flee their homes often start their journey at nighttime, Satolli said, for fear of ISIS snipers, who hide inside buildings and are perched on rooftops, ready to shoot — and kill — at any moment.

Members of the federal police change the tire of a bulldozer, used to make defensive barriers on the front lines against ISIS, in the al-Tayaran district. After liberating eastern Mosul, Satolli said Iraqi forces were able to rest a bit and repair their equipment and vehicles before beginning their next offensive in the west. “I noticed that now the Iraqi forces are more organized,” he said.

A torn rendering of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus is seen inside a building in the al-Dawwasah district.

Federal police take cover after a car bomb explosion in southwest Mosul. Satolli said he mainly spent his time following the Golden Division, a special forces unit, and the rapid response brigade.

Iraqi special forces inspect the recently liberated Mosul Museum, where most of the artifacts and antiquities were destroyed by ISIS.

Members of the Golden Division fight on the front lines in southwest Mosul.

A child is treated at a mobile clinic for a high fever and convulsions, brought on by malnutrition and exhaustion, after his family walked through the night fleeing heavy fighting in southwest Mosul.

A man is held in the garden of a villa in the al-Tayaran district. He was suspected of revealing the positions of Iraqi special forces and a field hospital that was targeted by mortars.

Men who fled fighting in their neighborhoods wait to be transferred to a camp for internally displaced people after passing through a screening point in the al-Akrab district.

A man is treated for exhaustion at a checkpoint after fleeing fighting in his southwest Mosul neighborhood. Satolli said the man had walked all night. “There was no ambulance for him and he was just lying on the carpet outside,” the photographer said.

The shadow of a lieutenant colonel from Iraq's elite rapid response division falls across the word “remaining” — part of the ISIS slogan “remaining and expanding” — painted on the wall of an underground training camp. “There are lots of sectarian groups and the division between Shia and Sunni,” Satolli said about the Iraqi region. He wonders what will follow the liberation of Mosul.

Emanuele Satolli is an Italian photographer based in Istanbul. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers