SHAHREZAD, Iraq (Reuters) - Seif Mohammed, his nose cut and swollen, winced and held his back. He had a narrow escape the previous day, surviving an Islamic State suicide car bomb then fleeing his home in Mosul to take shelter about a mile away.
“The blast didn’t just destroy my house but a whole block,” the 24-year-old said.
“They don’t target the army, they target civilians. There were three car bombs yesterday in Intisar. My dad and brother are still in hospital, I haven’t heard news of them. The neighbors were killed.”
Iraqi forces entered Mosul last week and pushed into the Intisar district in an operation to drive the hardline group from its last major city stronghold in Iraq.
The offensive, which involves a 100,000-strong alliance of troops, security forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite militias backed by U.S.-led air strikes, has so far gained just a small foothold in Mosul since it began four weeks ago.
Iraqi forces were fighting Islamic State militants in Intisar on Tuesday.
Fleeing residents said the militants had stepped up violence against civilians, including using car bombs, as they came under increasing military pressure in Intisar.
Ali Dhaher, 20, who had sheltered in an abandoned home overnight, looked relieved even as explosions sounded around him and fighting raged nearby.
“Thank God we’re no longer under Daesh,” he said, using a pejorative Arabic acronym for the Sunni extremists.
“Daesh is a byword for savagery. They target civilians even before targeting the army. It’s increased too. Wherever they are more encircled and lose territory, they increase their attacks on civilians.”
Dhaher’s family also had a narrow miss from a bomb attack the day before, he said. They were safe but people in the neighborhood had been killed.
Dhaher and Mohammed spoke from the Shahrezad district on the outskirts of eastern Mosul, where they took shelter overnight. Iraqi forces were shelling IS positions in Intisar from there on Tuesday.
After more than two years of IS control, hundreds have escaped the area this week but even in Shahrezad they are not out of danger yet. A loud explosion sent a group of them scattering for shelter.
Fathi Abu Abdallah, nursed a fresh wound to his upper lip and looked shaken.
“They (IS) shot me, right as I was collecting food aid next to the mosque on that corner, just a few minutes ago,” he indicated.
An Iraqi flag fluttered at the top of the green minaret. Small arms fire could be heard in the distance and the blast of army mortar fire more closely. Civilians huddled behind a wall for a few minutes after Abu Abdallah was hit.
In the rush to escape eastern Mosul, women clutching babies and elderly men and women stepped past burnt-out cars. Soldiers hoisted them onto army trucks headed for the Khazir refugee camp.
Trucks loaded with boxes of food and medical supplies pulled into Shahrezad even as tanks and armored vehicles positioned themselves behind battle-damaged buildings.
“This is the first aid that’s reached Shahrezad, and we’re thankful for that. People have been hungry and with no medical equipment,” said local notary Abbas, who was directing distribution of the aid.
He held a list of 70 families who had fled Intisar and needed supplies.
“It’s not enough, though,” he said. “There’s one box per family. This might last for four or five days, and then what happens?”
Young men climbed aboard the aid truck to unload it while men queued for the boxes to be distributed or squatted in the dirt.
The United Nations has warned of a possible exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Mosul is still home to up to 1.5 million people. So far at least 34,000 have been displaced, the International Organization for Migration says.
Dhaher and his father Hassan said their best bet was to head for Khazir, on foot if necessary.
“We need to go to any camp. Life is impossible, we’ve been left with nothing. We haven’t had food or water since we fled,” Hassan Dhaher said.
“Under Daesh, we didn’t have anything either - everyone was poor,” he added.
The family, from the Sufi Muslim sect, said they had suffered under the jihadists.
“Two of my sons in law were executed, slaughtered - one on accusations of collaboration, and the other simply for being a Sufi,” Hassan Dhaher said. “It was like living in prison, we stayed at home and tried not to be noticed.”
They hoped the army would flush Islamic State out of their neighborhood once and for all.
A senior Iraqi commander in the area told Reuters earlier that advances had been slower since entering Mosul itself.
“We don’t want to rush it because there are civilians and we don’t want to harm them. It’s harder to us to go into built up areas,” General Shaker Kazem Mohsen said.
In Shahrezad, an Iraqi army officer peered through a compass, ordering his soldiers to adjust their mortar fire and zero in on Islamic State positions.
Some of the few residents left offered soldiers tea as the small arms fire began to sound more distant.
Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan