MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — With the fight for Mosul in its final stage Monday, Islamic State militants sent female suicide bombers hidden among fleeing civilians, while Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition unleashed punishing airstrikes and artillery fire that set dozens of buildings ablaze.
At least one Iraqi soldier was killed and five were wounded in the two separate suicide attacks, the military said. On Sunday, a bomber in women’s clothing killed 14 people at a camp for displaced residents in Anbar province, a provincial official said. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
“These tactics don’t surprise me,” said Sgt. Ahmed Fadil, who patrolled Mosul’s Old City just 50 meters (yards) from the front.
The militants “have nowhere to go. They’re trapped,” he said.
Monday’s two suicide bombings against Iraqi soldiers followed three other such attacks by women — some of them teenagers — in the previous two days, said Sgt. Ali Abdullah Hussein.
A soldier displayed the school ID card retrieved from the body of one of the bombers, showing her to be only 15. The photo was of serious young woman in a white hijab and indicated she had studied in Bangladesh.
“Most of the people who blew themselves up today are women,” said special forces Lt. Col. Salam Hussein. He added that seven women strapped with explosives approached the troops Monday, “but thank God, our units stopped (them).”
Government troops advancing through the Old City were using rougher tactics to clear the remaining pockets of IS forces.
The tempo of airstrikes was so great Monday that coalition aircraft couldn’t keep up with the requests for air support from Iraqi ground forces. Instead, they sought approval for artillery strikes.
Associated Press drone footage showed the result: dozens of buildings burning in the Old City.
While shops have reopened and civilian traffic fills streets in retaken neighborhoods, thick black smoke continued to rise just a few kilometers away from IS-held territory on the bank of the Tigris River that divides Iraq’s second-largest city. The area controlled by the militants is less than a square kilometer (less than half a square mile).
Islamic State militants swiftly overran Mosul in 2014. The U.S.-backed offensive to retake the city was launched in October and has proceeded slowly, even though Iraqi political and military officials had vowed to declare victory by the end of 2016.
Iraqi forces began their push to retake the Old City in mid-June.
Even though the militants are squeezed into smaller and smaller territory, the danger remains for units like Fadil’s.
When they heard cries from civilians just around the corner, he and his colleagues rushed their commanding officer to safety into a nearby home that already had been cleared. They yelled at the group of sobbing women and children to hurry past.
Fadil explained the reason for their caution.
“They cry and then — boom! They explode themselves,” he said. “The closer we get to victory, the more suicide bombers they will send.”
At one screening point, soldiers anxiously held civilians back at gunpoint, shouting at men and boys to strip to their underwear.
Hussein, of the special forces, and a group of about a dozen men searched on foot Monday for more suicide bombers. An informant pointed out a house occupied by IS fighters.
A soldier kicked in a door, shouted a warning and threw two grenades into the front room. A second soldier stuffed a rag into a plastic jug of gasoline, lit it and threw it inside.
“There are some suicide bombers who refuse to leave the houses, so we’re forced to deal with them with smoke and fire and hand grenades,” Hussein said, noting that the troops burned only the basement, not the house.
His men seized five suspected IS fighters, binding their hands with electrical wire and blindfolding them with scraps of cloth. At least one of the five was arrested.
For most of the soldiers in Mosul, the final days of the grueling battle caps more than three years of fighting the militants.
Hassan Ahmed, a soldier with the special forces deployed in the Old City, said he can’t deny that the war has changed him.
“It’s like I’m heartless — I don’t feel anything,” he said. “But we are still good people. We have mercy.”
Associated Press writer Felipe Dana in Mosul contributed.