Mosul, Iraq: A small white drone hummed into sight and Thaker, a member of Iraq’s special forces, grabbed his machinegun and started lighting up the blue sky above eastern Mosul.
His bullets whizzed all around the hovering unmanned aircraft but failed to take it down. “I shot one down, this morning,” Thaker said.
The Counter-Terrorism Service Thaker serves in has been battling the Islamic State group in the streets of Mosul for weeks, dodging sniper and mortar fire, booby traps and suicide car bombs.
A relatively new threat in the war on the jihadists since they took over large parts of Iraq in 2014 comes from above, with the systematic use of cheap commercial drones by IS for reconnaissance purposes.
The jihadists use them much for the same reasons as Iraqi forces: to study the terrain, inform their snipers and assess their enemy’s deployment.
But IS also uses the drones “to pick itineraries for their car bombs”, Thaker said just as a huge blast ripped through the air of Al-Rifaq.
This neighbourhood of eastern Mosul was retaken by Iraqi forces last week and lies near the ancient ruins of Nineveh, a vast archaeological site in the heart of the city.
The blast was most likely caused by one of a constant string of pot shots taken by the jihadists’ mortar units at areas they lost.
The latest round crashed into the ground near a mosque, two streets down. It was not clear whether it caused any casualties.
Terrified residents pushed their front gates ajar to hear the latest from the front lines of a war that is unfolding literally on their doorstep.
Tens of thousands of them have fled the city since Iraqi forces on October 17 last year launched an offensive, the country’s largest military operation in years, to retake the IS bastion.
But hundreds of thousands of civilians remain in Iraq’s second largest city, many cowering without electricity or water in their shuttered homes.
Yusef, a father of six with a slat-and-pepper beard, peered from behind his gate and praised the Iraqi forces he said liberated him from two and a half years of jihadist rule.
“With them, there was no justice and no cigarettes,” he said.
Standing beside him was his nephew Mohammed, whose nose and right ear oozed blood under a hastily-applied bandage.
“It’s only a light wound... A car bomb exploded around 50 yards from where I was standing,” he explained, as he heaped thanks and praise on the special forces, whose black Humvees had parked in front of his house.
CTS forces, the best-trained and most seasoned combat units in Iraq, reached the Tigris for the first time on Sunday, a landmark on the rocky road to a full reconquest of Mosul.
With a fresh coordination effort and increased support from the US-led coalition, Iraqi forces have over the past 10 days found new momentum and seized several neighbourhoods in eastern Mosul.
Last week, they carried out their first night-time operation inside the city, crossing the Khosar river that feeds into the Tigris to retake the neighbourhood of Al Muthanna.
The Tigris splits the city in two and commanders are now confident they can finish retaking the eastern half soon but the west bank of the river remains under the full control of the jihadists.
One of the next targets for elite forces sweeping east Mosul will be the ruins of Nineveh, where IS jihadists destroyed priceless Assyrian heritage in 2014 in videos that shocked the world.
The once-protected site is now a battleground from which IS launched some of its latest attacks on Thaker and his unit....