MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - The Islamic State sniper was a good shot. His round hit the Iraqi soldier just above the eye through a hole in the wall no bigger than 10 inches across.
“Come, he’s been hit!” shouted one of his comrades, seconds after the sharp crack rang out.
Two soldiers crouching behind other peep-holes on the roof rushed inside, keeping their bodies low to avoid being spotted by the sniper.
They carried semi-conscious Omar Abdul Wahid, in his late 20s, down two flights of narrow stairs, leaving a trail of bright red blood. They bundled him into an armored vehicle and rushed him to hospital.
The challenge the men faced on Sunday - of dealing with a sole sharpshooter in an area the army entered weeks ago - shows how difficult the battle to recapture Mosul is becoming, with Islamic State deploying snipers and suicide car bombs, and using civilians as human shields to bog down Iraqi forces.
The unit from Iraq’s 9th Armoured Division had occupied the home in eastern Mosul’s Intisar neighborhood just two or three days ago as they make incremental advances against Islamic State as part a U.S.-backed campaign to recapture the city.
But the same sharpshooter had tied them down since then, in an area the army pushed into in early November.
“The sniper is next to the mosque,” little over 200 yards away, said Sattar Rikan, one of the soldiers. “We’re still trying to deal with him. A coalition air strike would sort him out.”
The U.S.-backed campaign to drive Islamic State out of its Iraq stronghold, which began in earnest last month, quickly retook surrounding villages. But advances slowed once Iraqi forces entered Mosul itself, in an increasingly costly fight.
“This is the second wounded we’ve had in the area in the last two days,” said Sadeq, 45, another soldier who gave only his first name.
“The round fragmented and went through (part of the skull), but didn’t hit him straight in the eye.”
‘A DIRTY FIGHT’
Securing areas recently captured was the biggest challenge, Sadeq said.
“It’s a dirty fight, it’s not conventional. They use snipers, car bombs, IEDs. You’re not in control of the area until you’ve walked through it, and searched it completely,” he said. “We want to finish the fighting in a given area as soon as possible so we can begin searches.”
The soldiers did not fire back when Abdul Wahid was hit.
“There are civilians everywhere, you can’t just fire randomly just because you’ve seen Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists,” Sadeq explained.
“Three times I’ve had RPGs fired at me from (militants) standing among civilians... Hopefully after two or three days we can advance.”
The 9th Armoured Division says advances in Mosul’s southeastern neighborhoods have been slow because of the civilian presence.
“If there weren’t civilians we’d be able to advance to the 4th bridge,” in southern Mosul, said Brigadier Gen. Mustafa Sabah said on Sunday.
The military is also keen to keep its own casualties to a minimum.
“In the past two days there haven’t been so many military casualties in the area because we’re moving slowly, but before it was harder,” medical officer Captain Osama Fuad, 33, said speaking in Shahrezad village on Mosul’s eastern outskirts.
At the front line, the unit went back to their firing positions.
They were not sure if Abdul Wahid would live.
Sadeq, who was praying when Abdul Wahid got shot, used a rag to mop up his comrade’s blood next to the green prayer mat.
He uttered the Koranic verse normally used when someone dies: “We are from God, and to God we will return.”
Editing by Anna Willard