Friend or foe? Sometimes hard to tell in war for Mosul

Government forces are already struggling to deal with thousands of civilians trying to escape the fighting

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He claimed to be a native of Mosul and said he had just escaped his embattled neighborhood. When his cell phone chirped cheerfully, he said it was his mother calling and picked up.

But the clean-shaven man seemed to have a Syrian accent, not Iraqi. His conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line was strange at times as he gave details on the situation in the nearby districts. “We’re wearing enough and we have everything we need,” he assured the caller.

Iraqi troops nearby eyed him suspiciously as he spoke to The Associated Press on Nov. 12 just after he showed up with his wife and toddler daughter among dozens of people fleeing fighting in Mosul. The troops then took him aside and detained him, believing he was an ISIS member.

The man illustrated the difficulty of knowing friend from foe in a chaotic war. Iraqi forces assaulting the city are on the lookout for ISIS fighters or members trying to slip out of the city with other residents, whether to escape or to sneak behind the lines to carry out attacks. A strange accent or odd behavior can draw suspicion.

Government forces are already struggling to deal with thousands of civilians trying to escape the fighting and thousands more still in the middle of it, hunkered down in their homes. One Iraqi official told the AP that 25 militants had previously been caught hiding among refugees.

That same day, a contact inside ISIS-held parts of the city called the AP and said the group was having its fighters shave their signature beards - required of all men in Mosul under their own rules - and sending them out among civilians.

From the thousands leaving the city, troops separate men from women and children and question the men, even young adolescents, trying to determine if any are fighters.

The Iraqi president, Fuad Massoum, said often other locals recognize ISIS members. “They (the locals) inform us about them. ... Those who are exposed (by civilians) are imprisoned,” Massoum said, speaking to the AP in Morocco, where he was attending a climate conference.

The man, who appeared to be in his 30s or early 40s, approached an AP team in Gogjali, one of several districts on Mosul’s eastern edge that Iraqi forces have retaken from ISIS.

The neighborhood had theoretically been seized by Iraqi forces two weeks ago, but was still in chaos. The ISIS singled out Gogjali for “an exhausting war on the streets” against Iraqi troops as recently as last week.

In one compound that soldiers said had been cleared of ISIS fighters, the small yard was littered with melted explosives and a severed human spine. In the driveway was a charred armor-plated car of the kind ISIS sends out by the dozens as suicide bombs.

The man pulled up in a truck along with about 60 others he said were his relatives. His 2-year-old daughter, wearing a full-length black dress, ambled alongside him. His wife, also in black, pulled down a full-face veil when the interview started.

Freshly shaven except for a small patch of facial hair on his chin, the man said he was a native of Mosul and gave his name as Omar Danoun, though it is not known if that was his real name. He had no problem appearing on camera, but insisted on wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. His wife reluctantly agreed to sit alongside him.

The group of men, women and children he arrived with initially sat in the shade by a wall but then all rose at once and walked away, rolling suitcases behind them as they disappeared into the streets of Gogjali, without going through the processing Iraqi troops carry out before allowing people into the camps.

Listening later to an audio recording of the interview, two Iraqi AP journalists and a Syrian said his accent in Arabic was Syrian, not Iraqi. His wife’s accent seemed to be Iraqi, but not from Mosul, which has its distinct linguistic particularities.

The family said they fled that morning from their home in eastern Mosul’s Saddam neighborhood, the old name for Zahra, a district captured several days ago by Iraqi forces.

The man said he had vowed that if he ever got out of Mosul he would tell the world what life there had been like under ISIS rule. He complained about not being able to move freely and said he and his family were detained by ISIS at one point for trying to escape to Turkey.

But while many who have fled Mosul are thin and make a point of talking about the city’s lack of food and communication, he said he managed to run businesses in Baghdad and Irbil and never wanted for food.

Then his phone rang and he asked to pause the camera while he took a call he said was from his mother.

Perhaps attracted by his accent, Iraqi soldiers silently encircled the family from a few meters away. Smoking and speaking on the phone, he seemed not to notice, although he and his wife both anxiously asked again if the camera had been turned off. One of the soldiers quietly told the AP team that he was a member of ISIS.

The man, meanwhile, told his caller he was speaking to journalists but denied he was being filmed. He then advised them to stay away from the neighborhood he had fled, saying the Iraqi army was at his house.

“If any of you come near the Iraqi army they’ll kill him,” he told the caller, then paused to listen to the response. “Ehsan will come to give them a mobile credit. Do not speak with each other by phone. And now, when you hang up, remove the SIM card from the phone.”

He put the phone down and struggled to answer one last question: How is it he and those he spoke with freely used their mobile phones, something that under ISIS rule in Mosul meant death if they were caught?

His cell rang again. Gunshots rang out in a nearby street.

The interview was over. The soldiers moved in. He pulled out an Iraqi passport and told them he was from Mosul. What appeared to be a second passport peeked from his pocket. He calmly explained his situation, his face betraying neither fear nor distress.

He was taken into custody.

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