Dolls, teddy bears return to eastern Mosul after Islamic State

A boy sits on his bicycle in front of a toy store, in eastern Mosul, Iraq

By Mohammed Al-Ramahi

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Toy shops are thriving in eastern Mosul, with Iraqi children once again able to buy dolls, teddy bears or action figures after Islamic State was driven out of the area.

The militant group banned toys with faces or eyes during the three years they controlled Iraq’s second largest city, including any anthropomorphic animals, which they deemed a form of idolatry.

But when U.S.-trained security forces drove the group from eastern Mosul in January, two toy stores sprang up and there are now 15, toy wholesaler Abu Mohammed told Reuters.

“Under Islamic State, any toys with faces we would have to make them veiled (if it is female) or only show eyes. Now this is no longer required and there is no ban on imports,” he said at his shop, Alaad for Toys.

Abu Mohammed imports toys from China and says that most of the large toy stores actually lie in the western side of the city, which is still the site of battle between Islamic State fighters and Iraqi security forces.

“Most of the large toy stores are in the west, so as soon as liberated there will be an even bigger boom.”

For toy store owner Abu Seif, business is brisk.

“Everything a child might want is available. Before there was a lot of things banned like images and faces, now a child can come choose whatever toys they want,” he said.

Parents say buying these toys for their children will help them move on after three years of war and terror.

“Children were oppressed (under Islamic State), they didn’t leave anything they didn’t ban. No faces on toys,” said Hassan, a father who was browsing for toys.

“Everyone was oppressed young and old. The toys are back, life is back, we are free.”

For Taha, whose young son stared wide-eyed at dolls, giraffes, teddy bears, and ponies in the shop, the ban on toys was just the tip of the iceberg.

“Those toys with faces were banned under the premise of apostasy and idolatry. These are myths. They are not Muslims, they are distorting Islam,” Taha said of Islamic State.

“Children are traumatized; they (Islamic State) ruined schools, they ruined toys, their (children’s) lives are hell.”

(Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by Alexander Smith)

Under siege in Mosul, Islamic State turns to executions and paranoia

Iraqi special forces soldiers sit on top of an armoured vehicle next to a flag of Imam Hussein in Bartella, east of Mosul, Iraq

By Samia Nakhoul and Michael Georgy

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – A few weeks ago, a person inside Mosul began to send text messages to Iraqi military intelligence in Baghdad.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, “has become intemperate,” said the early November message, written by an informant inside the city who has contact with the group but is not a member of it.

“He has cut down on his movements and neglects his appearance,” the message read. “He lives underground and has tunnels that stretch to different areas. He doesn’t sleep without his suicide bomber vest so he can set it off if he’s captured.”

The text message, which Reuters has seen, was one of many describing what was happening inside Islamic State as Iraqi, Kurdish and American troops began their campaign to retake the group’s northern Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

The texts, along with interviews with senior Kurdish officials and recently captured Islamic State fighters, offer an unusually detailed picture of the extremist group and its leader’s state of mind as they make what may be their last stand in Iraq. The messages describe a group and its leader that remain lethal, but that are also seized by growing suspicion and paranoia.

Defectors or informants were being regularly executed, the person texted. Baghdadi, who declared himself the caliph of a huge swathe of Iraq and Syria two years ago, had become especially suspicious of people close to him. “Sometimes he used to joke around,” one text said. “But now he no longer does.”

While Reuters has verified the identity of the informant who has been texting Iraqi military intelligence, the news agency couldn’t independently confirm the information in the messages. But the picture that emerges fits with intelligence cited by two Kurdish officials – Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Security Council,  and Lahur Talabany, who is chief of counter-terrorism and director of the KRG intelligence agency.

Talabany and other intelligence chiefs said the military coalition is making slow but steady progress against Islamic State. The coalition has formidable assets inside Mosul, they said, including trained informers and residents who provide more basic surveillance by texting or phoning from the city’s outskirts. Some of the informants have families in Kurdistan whom the KRG pays.

The Kurds believe that the military assault on Mosul, which began on October 17, is fueling Islamic State’s sense of fear and mistrust. In the short term, they said, the group’s obsession with rooting out anyone who might betray it may help rally fighters to defend Mosul. But the obsession also means the group has turned inwards right as it faces the most serious threat to its existence in Iraq since seizing around a third of the country’s territory in the summer of 2014.

The number of executions is a clear sign Islamic State is beginning to hurt, said Karim Sinjari, interior minister and acting defense minister with the KRG, which controls the Kurdish area in northern Iraq.

As well, he said, many of the group’s local Iraqi fighters lack the “strong belief in martyrdom that the jihadis have.”

“Most of the die-hard Islamists who are fighting to the death are foreign fighters, but their numbers at the frontline are less than before because they are getting killed in battle and in suicide attacks,” he said.

Barzani said the growing paranoia has pushed Baghdadi and his top lieutenants to move around a lot, further hurting the group’s ability to defend the city. Baghdadi, Barzani said, “is using all the different tactics to hide and protect himself: changing positions, using different ways of traveling, living in different locations, using different communications.”

If the military coalition does push Islamic State from Mosul, the Kurdish officials said, the group is likely to flee to Syria, from where it will pose a nagging threat to Iraq through regular suicide attacks and other guerilla tactics.

Iraqi soldiers pose with the Islamic State flag along a street of the town of al-Shura, which was recaptured from Islamic State

Iraqi soldiers pose with the Islamic State flag along a street of the town of al-Shura, which was recaptured from Islamic State (IS), south of Mosul, Iraq October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo


Islamic State has always been paranoid. Its rule in Syria and Iraq has relied in large part on a vast intelligence network that uses everyone from children to battle-hardened former Baathists to spy on both subjects and its own officials. [Link to:]

That paranoia appears to have reached new levels as Islamic State’s enemies advance. Suspicion grew in the weeks before government troops began to encircle Mosul in mid October.

Early last month, Islamic State leaders uncovered an internal plot against Baghdadi, according to Mosul residents and Iraqi security officials. Hatched by a leading Islamic State commander, the plot was foiled when an Islamic State security official found a telephone SIM card that contained the names of the plotters and showed their links to U.S. and Kurdish intelligence officers.

Retribution was brutal. Islamic State killed 58 suspected plotters by placing them in cages and drowning them, according to residents and Iraqi officials.

Since then, Islamic State has executed another 42 people from local tribes, Iraqi intelligence officers said. Those people were also caught with SIM cards.

Possession of SIMs or any form of electronic communication now amounts to an automatic death sentence, according to residents in Islamic State areas. The group has set up checkpoints where its militants search people, and regularly mount raids on areas hit by U.S. air strikes because Islamic State officials assume locals have helped to identify targets.

The informant texting from Mosul is aware of the dangers. “I am talking to you from the rooftop,” began one recent message. “The planes are in the skies. Before I go back down I will delete the messages and hide the SIM card.”


Islamic State relies on a network of child informers, the so called ashbal al khilafa or “cubs of the caliphate.”

“These young boys eavesdrop and find out information from other kids about their fathers, brothers, and their activities”, said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraq government adviser and Islamic State expert. “In every street there are one or two ashbal al khilafa who spy on the adults.”

The huge network of informants also hurts Islamic State, according to Lahur Talabany, chief of counter-terrorism for the KRG.  Overwhelmed by information, the group is devoting a lot of its energy to its own people rather than its enemies. That fuels further paranoia.

“There are regular (internal) plots against Baghdadi” Talabany told Reuters. “We see incidents like that on a weekly basis, and they take out their own guys.”

Until a few months ago, Talabany said, he had a mole inside Baghdadi’s inner circle: an Islamic State commander who had once belonged to al-Qaeda.

“He was a Kurd born in Hawija”, the Kurdish spy chief said, declining to name the man. “He was one of my detainees. I released him a year before Daesh (Islamic State) arrived.”

After Islamic State seized Mosul, the commander-turned-agent infiltrated the group and was made a military officer. From that position, he began feeding the Kurds “valuable daily information.”

The agent told Talabany that Baghdadi consulted closely with top aides, including Saudis who he said were experts on Sharia law. Saudi Arabia has said that there are Saudi nationals in Islamic State.

“He told me Baghdadi has got charisma, and has connections, but that he is a front. And that the committees around him take the main decisions, even on the military side,” Talabany said.

The agent told Talabany he had met Baghdadi a few times and was plotting to kill the Islamic State leader. But before the commander could act, Islamic State discovered he was working as an agent. A few months ago, Talabany said, Islamic State publicly executed him.


The group’s brutal methods were recounted in a rare interview with two captured Islamic State fighters last week. Reuters met the fighters at a Kurdish counter-terrorism compound in the town of Sulaimaniya. A Kurdish intelligence official and an interrogator sat in on the interviews but did not interfere.

Ali Kahtan, 21, was captured after he killed five Kurdish fighters at a police station seized by Islamic State in the northern town of Hawija.

Kahtan’s path to militancy began at the age of 13, he said. He became a member of al Qaeda and then joined Islamic State when a friend took him for religious lessons and military training at a Hawija mosque. The training, he said, involved learning how to use a machine gun and pistol. Trainees were also shown how to cut someone’s throat with the bayonet from an AK-47.

Kahtan said that a year ago, a local emir ordered him to cut the throats of five Kurdish fighters. The emir stood over him while he did it, he said.

“One after the other with a knife, a Kalashnikov blade, I did it. Really, I felt nothing.” Afterwards, he said, he returned home. “I cleaned up and sat down to have dinner with my parents.”

Kahtan said Islamic State fighters no longer talk about taking over Baghdad, but focus solely on Mosul, and how to recruit more fighters to protect it.

A second detainee, Bakr Salah Bakr, 21, who was caught as he prepared to carry out a suicide attack in Kurdistan, said Islamic State initially tried to recruit him through Facebook to join the fight in Mosul. They are desperate for Iraqi fighters, he indicated, because the influx of foreign fighters dried up after Turkey slowly closed its borders a year ago.

Civilians return to their village after it was liberated from Islamic State militants, south of Mosul, Iraq

Civilians return to their village after it was liberated from Islamic State militants, south of Mosul, Iraq October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudaini/File Photo


Iraqi intelligence officials say they believe Baghdadi is not in Mosul but in al-Ba’aj district, a bedouin town on the edge of Nineveh province, which borders Syria. Ba’aj has a population of about 20,000 and is dominated by extremists loyal to Islamic State.

The area is heavily fortified, with long tunnels that were built after the fall of Saddam when the town became a staging post for smuggling weapons and volunteers from Syria into Iraq.

Even if Mosul and Baghdadi fall, said Kurdish counter-terrorism chief Talabany, Islamic State is likely to persist. “They will go back to more asymmetric warfare, and we will be seeing suicide attacks inside KRG, inside Iraqi cities and elsewhere.”

Security chief Barzani agreed. “The fight against IS is going to be a long fight,” he said. “Not only militarily, but also economically, ideologically.”

Barzani, who is the son of veteran Kurdish leader and KRG President Masoud Barzani, estimated there are around 10,000 Islamic State suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria. He said Islamic State had prepared waves of fighters it was now deploying to defend Mosul.

“You see the first group come to the frontline and they know they’re going to be killed by the planes overhead, but they still come. And then the second group come to the same place where the others were hit,” he said. “They see the limbs and the bodies all over and they know they will die, but they still do it. They see victory in dying for their own cause.”

(Edited by Simon Robinson)

Iraqi troops battle Islamic State inside Mosul

Tribal fighters walk as fire and smoke rises from oil wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants before IS militants fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq,

By Stephen Kalin and Dominic Evans

EAST OF MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces battled Islamic State fighters on the eastern edge of Mosul on Tuesday as the two-week campaign to recapture the jihadists’ last main bastion in Iraq entered a new phase of urban warfare.

Artillery and air strikes pounded the city, still home to 1.5 million people, and residents of the eastern neighborhood of al-Quds said the ultra-hardline Sunni militants had resorted to street fighting to try to hold the army back.

Soldiers of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CST) also entered the state television station in Mosul on Tuesday, the first capture of an important building in the Islamic State-held city since the start of the offensive about two weeks ago, the force commander, Lieutenant-General Talib Shaghati, said.

“This is a good sign for the people of Mosul because the battle to liberate Mosul has effectively begun,” Shaghati said.

Iraqi troops, security forces, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish peshmerga have been advancing on several fronts toward Mosul, backed by U.S.-led troops and air forces. Special forces units sweeping in from the east have made fastest progress.

“We are currently fighting battles on the eastern outskirts of Mosul,” CTS Lieutenant-General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi said. “The pressure is on all sides of the city to facilitate entry to the city center.”

He said CTS forces had cleared Islamic State fighters from most of the eastern district of Kokjali, close to al-Quds, on Tuesday, “so now we are inside the district of Mosul”.

Blackish grey smoke hung in the air east of the Islamists’ stronghold and the regular sound of outgoing artillery fire could be heard, said a Reuters reporter near Bazwaia, about five km (three miles) east of Mosul.

Inside the city, residents speaking to Reuters by telephone said they heard the sounds of heavy clashes since dawn.

One inhabitant of al-Quds district at the city’s eastern entrance said bullets were fizzing past and hitting the walls of houses, describing the explosions as “deafening and frightening”. Many people in the area have stayed indoors for the last two days.

“We can see Daesh (Islamic State) fighters firing towards the Iraqi forces and moving in cars between the alleys of the neighborhood. It’s street fighting.”

One witness said he saw nine cars, laden with families and furniture, heading from the eastern half of the to the west bank of the Tigris River to escape the encroaching frontline.

Away from the eastern fringe of the city, however, traffic was relatively normal, markets were open, and Islamic State fighters were patrolling as usual.


Mosul is many times bigger than any other city held by Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. Its recapture would mark the collapse of the Iraqi wing of the caliphate which it declared in parts of both countries two years ago, although the hardline Sunni militants have recovered from other setbacks in Iraq.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Monday that Iraqi forces were trying to close off all escape routes for the several thousand Islamic State fighters inside Mosul.

“God willing, we will chop off the snake’s head,” Abadi, wearing military fatigues, told state television. “They have no escape, they either die or surrender.”

Commanders have warned that the fight for Mosul, which could be the toughest of the decade-long turmoil since the U.S. invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, is likely to last for months.

The United Nations has said the Mosul offensive could also trigger a humanitarian crisis and a possible refugee exodus if the civilians inside in Mosul seek to escape, with up to 1 million people fleeing in a worst-case scenario.

The International Organisation for Migration said that nearly 18,000 people have been displaced since the start of the campaign on Oct. 17, excluding thousands of villagers who were forced back into Mosul by retreating jihadists who used them as human shields.

U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said Islamic State fighters tried to force another 25,000 civilians from a town south of Mosul back toward the city on Monday. Most of the trucks carrying them turned back under pressure from patrolling aircraft, she said.

Not all those heading back were doing so under duress from the militants, according to Mosul residents who said people were streaming in from the south as military operations edged closer to the city.

Most came without any belongings, though some brought sheep and a few camels into the city, they said.

In Bazwaia, CTS guards told Reuters that a suicide car bomber tried to attack their position early on Tuesday, but they halted it with machinegun fire. Rubble and parts of the attacker’s body could still be seen by a nearby berm.

As well as the suicide attacks, the Islamic State militants have slowed the army’s advance with snipers, mortar fire, roadside bombs and booby traps inside abandoned buildings.

In Bazwaia, recaptured by Iraqi troops a day earlier, about a dozen civilians could be seen coming out of the village, waving white flags and bringing with them their livestock — about 200 sheep and a few cows and donkeys.

A man who just fled Bazwaia village carries a white flag as he arrives at a special forces checkpoint, east of Mosul, Iraq,

A man who just fled Bazwaia village carries a white flag as he arrives at a special forces checkpoint, east of Mosul, Iraq, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Saidi, the CTS officer, said 500 civilians had already been moved from Bazwaia to a camp for displaced people further away from the frontline.

“We expect to encounter more civilians as we push through the city,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Tom Miles in Geneva, Writing by Dominic Evans in Baghdad, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Iraq’s Mosul residents feel relief, anxiety as liberation nears

Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi (C) walks during his visit to the Nineveh Liberation Operations Command at Makhmour base, south of Mosul, Iraq,

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – As Iraqi forces prepare to attack Islamic State in its de facto capital of Mosul, residents inside the city and others who have managed to escape expressed relief at the prospect their home could be liberated from the extremist group’s harsh rule.

But they also warned that if the assault is successful, the city’s Sunni-majority population would refuse to return to what they called the repressive yoke imposed by the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad in the past.

The Iraqi army and its elite units that will lead the offensive are gradually taking up positions around the city 400 km (248 miles) north of Baghdad, from whose Grand Mosque in 2014 Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning regions of Iraq and Syria.

The offensive is slated for late September, said Hisham al-Hashimi, who works for the government as a consultant on IS affairs and is author of the book “The World of Daesh” (IS).

Eight Mosulite men, contacted secretly by phone on the outskirts of the city, said signs of dissent are increasing ahead of the expected assault. They all spoke on condition of not being identified for fear of retribution.

Walls have been daubed with the Arabic letter M, for “muqawama”, or resistance, or two parallel stripes, one red and one black, representing the Iraqi flag, said a resident who spoke from one of the rare areas that still gets mobile telephone coverage.

“These are acts of real bravery,” he said. “If you’re caught, you’re dead.”

The Iraqi national flag was raised twice in public squares, once in June and again in July, infuriating the militants who tore them down the next morning, residents told Reuters, authenticating videos posted on Facebook pages.

An unknown number of people were arrested after the July incident, among them former army officers, they said.

With a population at one time as large as two million, Mosul is the largest urban center under the ultra-hardline militants’ control. Its fall would mark their effective defeat in Iraq, according to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Many IS leaders have fled Mosul for Syria with their families ahead of the planned offensive, Iraq’s defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi said on July 30.

As Iraqi forces tighten the noose, the militants have grown increasingly paranoid, residents said.

The militants have always kept tight control on communication to preempt hostile propaganda and prevent informants from passing on information to the Iraqi forces or the U.S.-led anti-IS military coalition that is carrying out most of the airstrikes on their positions.

They blocked mobile networks in 2014 and banned satellite TV earlier this year, allowing home internet access only through a server they controlled.

As of a month ago they restricted internet access further to a handful of official Wifi centers manned by supervisors who monitor content over users’ shoulders.

At checkpoints set up by the IS “amniya”, or security committee, people are asked if they have Facebook and must unlock their phones to prove that they do not.

“Thank God I don’t even know what Facebook is, but I was jailed for a week and paid a fine because they found dancing music saved on my mobile,” said a taxi driver reached by phone.


Younis, a high school teacher of Arabic literature in his 40’s, fled Mosul with his family in May. His biggest fear was that his son, just eight years old, was being indoctrinated into the group’s extreme interpretation of Islam.

“We escaped from Mosul and risked death for my son’s sake; I wanted to rescue him from turning into a jihadist,” he said, speaking in a flat in Baghdad, holding his boy in his arms.

“How can I stay silent and I’m seeing Daesh brainwashing my son and teaching him how to become a suicide bomber?” he said.

He showed a photocopy of the cover of a fifth grader’s textbook featuring a boy with an AK-47 machine gun on his  shoulder.

“I know it’s risky to keep this paper with me but I decided to hide it and show it to anybody who asks me how life was under Daesh,” he added, puffing on a cigarette, which is banned by IS.

He expressed frustration that his wife has continued to  wear the full veil, or niqab, after moving to Baghdad. The niqab is compulsory under the IS in Mosul, even on store mannequins, and women are forbidden to walk outside without a male guardian.

“Don’t cover your face please for God’s sake,” he pleaded with his wife. “No need to be afraid anymore, you’re a human being and not a slave.”

Younis said he paid a taxi driver $5,000 to help them flee  Mosul via the Kurdish Peshmerga lines east of the city, taking advantage of the confusion that ensued after advances made by the Kurdish and Iraqi forces in May.

The army progressed further in July, capturing the Qayyara airfield 60 km (35 miles) south of Mosul, which will serve as the main staging post for the expected offensive.

Once the fighting intensifies, up to one million people could be driven from their homes in northern Iraq, “posing a massive humanitarian problem for the country”, the International Committee of the Red Cross said last month.

More than 3.4 million people have already been forced by conflict to leave their homes across Iraq, taking refuge in areas under control of the government or in the Kurdish region.


The Peshmerga fighters have been deployed to the north and east of Mosul with their back to their Kurdish region that hosts a base of U.S.-led coalition troops assisting Iraqi forces. Local Sunni fighters will also join the offensive.

The possible participation of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias is stirring controversy, however.

Mosul residents and politicians said they dread the participation of these militias, known as Popular Mobilization, or Hashid Shaabi in Arabic.

They cite abuses in Sunni cities retaken from Islamic State, like the looting in Tikrit last year and reports of torture, revenge killings and kidnappings in Falluja, a historic jihadist stronghold near Baghdad.

Although Sunnis are predominant in the northern and western provinces under militant control, Shi’ites are in the majority overall in Iraq.

The Sunnis in Mosul were mostly indifferent to the IS offensive of 2014 and some even supported it if it would end  the oppression of the security forces under former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an ally of Iran.

Maliki has since been succeeded by Abadi, another Shi’ite, who has taken a conciliatory approach toward the Sunnis and softened the alliance with Tehran.

Abadi has yet to decide whether the Shi’ite militias will take part in the offensive.

The former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, told Reuters the local administration of the city should have more autonomy after the militants are dislodged.

A police force reflective of the city’s complex ethnic and religious make-up should be in charge of security, not the army, added Nujaifi, who leads a Sunni militia that plans to take part in the offensive on Mosul alongside the army.

“The sweeping advance of Daesh in Mosul created a new reality,” he said.

Younis, the teacher, and Mosulites who still live in the city said even though IS rule was much worse than government rule under Maliki, the population won’t accept to return to the previous situation.

“Berlin after Hitler couldn’t possibly be like before and so should Mosul be after Daesh,” said Younis. “We need a new system to govern Mosul, we cannot suffer more ordeals.”

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)