In Mosul, Revealing the Last ISIS Stronghold

An Iraqi federal police officer in the Old City of west Mosul. CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Days after the Iraqi government officially declared victory over the Islamic State in Mosul in July, the fighting was far from over.

Roughly the size of a block in Manhattan, the last ISIS holdout of the Old City did not seem like the kind of place where anyone could still be alive after weeks of brutal combat. But a few such areas kept up the fight for days. And — horribly, amazingly — civilians were still being pulled out.

What we saw as we went step by step with the Iraqi forces here made their survival seem even more miraculous.

At a forward base near the front line, Iraqi special forces soldiers brought in a man who had crossed the front line, holding a young boy no more than 2.

Iraqi special forces soldiers washed and dressed a small boy who had been carried out of an area under ISIS control by a man suspected of being a fleeing militant.CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

Wearing just a bloodied vest and a dirty pair of shorts with no shoes, the man did not even know who the child was. He was immediately suspected of being an ISIS fighter who had merely used the boy as a human shield.

The troops took the man away, and the commander in charge held the boy on his lap. Doubting that the boy’s parents could still be alive, he decided that one of his men — he knew that the soldier and his wife had been unable to have children of their own — should adopt the boy.

Here on the battlefield, some of the men washed the child and his tattered clothing before the officer arrived to meet his new son.

As Iraqi forces took control of the Old City and searched the area, they seized several of the Islamic State’s undetonated car bombs, the heavily armored improvisations that became the most feared weapons in the militants’ arsenal. Soldiers drove one of the captured vehicles back to their base, sandwiched in a military convoy through west Mosul.

The few civilians who had come back to the area stopped in disbelief to watch the vehicle lumber by, still able to evoke shock even in safer hands.

Soldiers driving a captured car bomb, made by the Islamic State, through Mosul back to their base. CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

A squad of special forces soldiers near the front line of continued clashes in the Old City began to shout that they had found an injured militant in the basement of a shattered building. A few of the men hauled the emaciated fighter out of the basement into the street. He was barely alive, injured during a battle several days before.

He said that his name was Malik, and that he was a 36-year-old resident of Mosul. He was so weak it was hard to imagine him being a capable fighter at any point recently.

The commander ordered him to be taken to a doctor, and the men carried him away across the mounds of rubble and around the corner, out of sight.

Soldiers carrying away an injured militant who was found in the basement of a destroyed building in the Old City. CreditIvor Prickett for The New York Times

While searching one building’s courtyard, soldiers came across the bodies of up to 10 men, dead for probably more than a week. It was impossible to verify what had happened or even who they were, although the soldiers immediately proclaimed that they had been members of the Islamic State.

At least two of the bodies appeared to have their hands tied behind their backs. Whether they were captives of the Islamic State who died in a shootout or ISIS prisoners who were summarily executed it was impossible to say. But this last stage of the battle, often taking place under a media blackout, has been punctuated by rumors of extrajudicial killings by the security forces.