RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - When Islamic State militants fleeing the Iraqi military’s advance in Ramadi tried to force Mohammed Nafaa to follow them across the city for the fourth time in as many months, he and his family hid inside and hoped to be left alone.
After the militants retreated again last week, Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces evacuated Nafaa and scores of other residents who had been hiding for around ten days, steering them to safety through streets mined with explosives.
Ramadi has been touted as the first major success for Iraq’s U.S.-backed army since it collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s lightning advance across the country’s north and west in mid-2014.
But clearing the city from militants and explosives could take weeks. And the discovery of more civilians than expected trapped among the ruins, after what the survivors say was a deliberate effort by fighters to use them as shields, suggests future battles against Islamic State could be more complicated.
Contrary to initial estimates in the hundreds, commanders say their forces have so far extricated about 3,800 civilians from Ramadi, a city of hundreds of thousands of residents largely evacuated after Islamic State seized control in May.
The counter-terrorism forces, which spearheaded Ramadi’s recapture with the help of hundreds of U.S.-led coalition air strikes, have had to shift gears from direct combat to humanitarian relief, according to the commanders.
“We’re not that prepped to deal with civilians, but we just improvised on the ground,” said Colonel Arkan, who declined to provide his last name. “We’re giving help and support and care on one hand and fighting at the same time.”
Strict rules of engagement may have limited civilian casualties in the city, but they have slowed the military’s advance and allowed militants to escape to northern and eastern outskirts.
Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, the fertile Euphrates river valley running from the Syrian border to the outskirts of Baghdad, where Sunni Muslim tribes have resented the Shi’ite-led central government since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Islamic State fighters’ determination to hide among civilians in Ramadi raises concerns about upcoming battles in Mosul, Islamic State’s northern stronghold which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to retake this year, and Falluja, the longest-held militant city sitting at Baghdad’s western gates.
“Falluja is full of families, not like Ramadi... And in Mosul more than 70 percent of the (two million) residents are still there,” said General Fadel Barwari, a senior counter-terrorism officer.
“The biggest problem is how we enter the city while they are using families as human shields,” he told Reuters on Saturday at a command center in southern Ramadi. “They don’t care how many they kill; the only thing they care about is Islamic State.”
The combination of counter-terrorism forces and coalition air strikes is expected to be critical in future battles, with the rest of the army, police and irregular forces composed mainly of Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias and some Sunni tribal fighters providing support and holding land.
Established and trained by U.S. Special Forces following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the counter-terrorism forces are equipped to handle limited operations involving civilians such as hostage situations. But dealing with civilians on this scale is uncharted territory for the force of several hundred black-clad soldiers.
“Ramadi is the first case that we have civilians within our operational spectrum like this. For us it’s a good initial training that this is how we’re going to deal with them,” said Colonel Arkan.
“We keep pushing into the area and it’s up to (Islamic State) to stay and die or actually flee,” he added. “But nine times out of ten they flee and we take the civilians.”
Martial songs blasted through loudspeakers atop counter-terrorism forces’ Humvees have signaled a brief respite from civilians’ suffering in Ramadi.
Nafaa and his family first left their home in Kilo 5, west of Ramadi, in September when Islamic State militants broke down the door and dragged them to the central al-Souq district, he said.
As the militants were pushed further east, they loaded civilians into Kia pickup trucks — four families to a vehicle — and forced them north to a district called al-Thayyala and then later to another, al-Soufiya. Those who resisted were threatened, beaten and shot, residents said.
“If you don’t leave, they consider you apostates waiting for the other apostates to rescue you,” said Khalida Jaafar Sadek, an elderly woman extracted by the counter-terrorism forces last week.
When the militants came to round them up for the fourth move, Nafaa ushered his parents, wife and children into an interior room in the abandoned house in al-Soufiya where they had been living, and hid.
“We could see them from behind the door. They were searching around the perimeter of the house and knocking on the door but they could not get inside to us,” he told Reuters on Saturday at a makeshift clinic set up by the counter-terrorism forces beside Ramadi’s main mosque.
After holding out for 11 days, Nafaa heard Iraqi forces in the street. An initial attempt to escape was aborted when an explosive went off near the family, but the security forces brought them out the following day.
Other residents tell nearly identical stories, but the civilians are not yet in the clear; they now face multiple security screenings.
“If (intelligence agencies) have information on some of them like they have been suspected (of terrorism), they push them through the system normally and if not they go on to the refugee center,” said Colonel Arkan.
Several hundred male civilians have been detained for security checks and so far only a few dozen have been released, according to security sources.
Men who pass security screenings, along with women and children, are being resettled near a military base about 30 km (20 miles) east of the city.
Given widespread destruction in Ramadi, where nearly half a million people once lived, and despite government pledges to rebuild, it could be years before residents return to anything resembling their hometown.
Few buildings have been spared from damage; air strikes, which continue to bombard outlying areas every few minutes, have flattened dozens of homes and left craters along main roads.
Parts of the landscape have been so distorted by fighting that soldiers on a recent drive appeared unsure of the geography anymore.
Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Peter Graff