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Mosul neighbors wake up to a day without ISIS, but a long path to peace (w/video)

A man wipes tears from his eyes and holds a white flag as Iraqi special forces search his home in Gogjali, an eastern district of Mosul. Troops went house-to-house looking for ISIS militants.
A man wipes tears from his eyes and holds a white flag as Iraqi special forces search his home in Gogjali, an eastern district of Mosul. Troops went house-to-house looking for ISIS militants.
Published Nov. 3, 2016

For the first time in more than two years, residents of eastern Mosul enjoyed a day without the Islamic State. As Iraqi security forces drove the muddy streets of the neighborhood, families stepped from the gates of their driveways, waving, flashing two-fingered victory signs and yelling, "Heroes!" Others held white flags.

Some men, in ankle-length Arab gowns in the jihadi-regulation style, were smoking cigarettes, while others had them tucked behind their ears. They were celebrating the Iraqi forces' victory over the Islamic State in their area by savoring some of the small pleasures banned under more than two years of militant rule.

"We are very, very happy," said one man, Qais Hassan, 46, surrounded by soldiers. "Now we have our freedom." The Islamic State, he said, had "asked us to implement religion. But they had nothing to do with religion."

Iraqi soldiers were seeing firsthand what life in Mosul had been like under Islamic State rule imposed in 2014. But they were also catching a glimpse of some of the challenges ahead, simultaneously pressing the fight toward the city center and going about the messy business of re-establishing government authority.

Whether the mostly Shiite Iraqi military and police forces can keep the peace behind their front lines will largely depend on whether they can care for the displaced and root out Islamic State fighters, without exacting collective punishment on a Sunni Arab population that had largely welcomed the Islamic State fighters at first.

The victory by Iraqi counterterrorism forces in this eastern neighborhood of Mosul was a promising moment. But most expect long and intense fighting before the entire sprawling city, once the nation's second largest, is reclaimed.

Wednesday began rainy and cloudy — difficult for the U.S. warplanes assisting the Iraqi ground forces. Later the sun came out, but the fighting went largely quiet, interrupted by occasional sporadic shooting in the distance.

The Iraqi special forces in the area of eastern Mosul, who allowed a group of New York Times journalists to travel with them, were going door-to-door in a hunt for weapons, booby traps and Islamic State fighters.

At the same time, they were trying to keep order as entire families, with backpacks and suitcases in tow, streamed in from neighborhoods still controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Male residents were mostly fixated on three things: the big beards they had been forced to keep, the cigarettes they had been denied, and the cellphones they had been forbidden to use.

"They would have killed me if they saw this," said Farras Sharif, 55, holding up a cellphone. "Just one bullet."

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A newly clean-shaven man, Saad Qhais, held his hands about three inches from his chin and said, "My beard was to here. I was really dirty."

Most of the women from the neighborhood stayed indoors, but there were many among those displaced from other neighborhoods, in niqabs and veils, some carrying white flags and bags of clothing.

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