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Mosul residents: ‘Life of fear and hardship’ under ISIS

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The Iraqi army's armored division is closing in on the outskirts of Mosul after sweeping through enemy-controlled land in the past 48 hours, liberating communities village by village, the division's commander told CNN Wednesday, October 19, 2016 as the operation to liberate Mosul from the grip of ISIS militants intensifies.. Pictured is Camp Debaga southeast of Mosul, Iraq.

NEAR MOSUL, Iraq– Further glimpses of life under ISIS rule are emerging as more and more refugees flee Mosul, the Iraqi city which is the focus of a major campaign to liberate northern Iraq from jihadist control.

Contrary to ISIS propaganda videos, which once held up the city as a bastion of peace and order under its rule, residents who have fled the city are finally free to tell their version of life under the terror group.

“In the beginning it was alright,” Ibrahim, from Mosul, tells CNN’s Ben Wedeman. “But then they started ordering around and killing people. Everyone is afraid of them.” He didn’t want his face shown or his full name given, such is the fear that the jihadist group still holds over its former charges.

Iraqis who were once swayed by the slick productions that ISIS posted on social media soon learned of the privations and violence that permeated the cities that the group occupied.

“From the outside it looks nice,” says Salim, another refugee. He’s waiting from security clearance from Kurdish security officers in Debaga camp, south of Irbil — everyone coming from ISIS-held territory is suspect.

“But in reality it’s a life of fear and hardship.”

New offensive announced

Peshmerga forces launched a new, three-pronged offensive to the north of the Iraqi city of Mosul Thursday, a press release from the Kurdish military force said.

Described as a “large-scale operation” which would focus on areas to the north and northeast of the city, it would capitalise on gains made by Kurdish and Iraqi forces, the Peshmerga’s General Command announced in a press release.

Key ISIS personnel abandoning Mosul?

A US general said some local ISIS leaders are fleeing.

“We are telling Daesh that their leaders are abandoning them, and we have seen movement out of Mosul,” US Army Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky said in a video briefing from Baghdad, referring to ISIS by another name.

ISIS distributed leaflets Wednesday evening to residents, demanding they hand over their mobile phone SIM cards and remove all antennas from the roofs of their homes. ISIS representatives will collect the SIM cards over the next 24 hours, according to the leaflets. Anyone who fails to comply will be arrested, according to the leaflets.

A unit of what appeared to be US special forces advisers entered ISIS territory Monday with the first armored convoy of Peshmerga, a CNN team observed. They followed a dozens-strong unit of Kurdish armor bound for ISIS positions, placing American forces at the front of the fight to retake Mosul.

Trump: Mosul offensive designed to help Clinton

The campaign to liberate Iraq’s second-largest city — and ISIS’ last major Iraqi stronghold — made it to the US Presidential debate stage Wednesday night as Republican candidate Donald Trump suggested that the major, months-long offensive on the city was launched to help his rival win the US presidency.

The claim, which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said “amazed” her, came in the third and last presidential debate.

“The only reason they did it is because she’s running for the office of president and they want to look tough,” Trump said. “They want to look good.”

Clinton said Trump’s claim reflected his belief in conspiracy theories.

“I’m just amazed that he seems to think that the Iraqi government and our allies and everybody else launched the attack on Mosul to help me in this election, but that’s how Donald thinks,” Clinton said. “You know, he always is looking for some conspiracy.”

Complex defenses

The coalition’s more than 94,000 members vastly outnumber their opponents. But ISIS, expecting the push, has constructed elaborate defenses, including a network of tunnels.

Advancing Iraqi forces sometimes encounter ISIS fighters who seemingly pop out of the ground to fire weapons. The tunnels wind through hills, with one entrance not far from an exit.

Coalition forces will also likely face suicide bombings, car bombs and booby traps.

Up to 5,000 ISIS fighters are in Mosul, a US military official said. ISIS’ supporters put the number at 7,000.

Attempt to free Christian town

On the road to Mosul, Iraqi-led forces have besieged a Christian town in an attempt to liberate it from ISIS control, but they are facing fierce resistance and exchanging heavy gunfire with militants, a paramilitary general told CNN.

Iraqi security forces, Peshmerga fighters and a Christian paramilitary group have forced ISIS fighters into the center of Qaraqosh, where airstrikes are pounding the militants, in apparent coalition support of the assault, Gen. Amr Shamoun from the Christian militia group said.

Qaraqosh was a Christian town, home to 50,000 before ISIS took control. An exodus saw thousands flee to Mosul, only to be forced out again when ISIS took that key city.

It’s the latest clash with ISIS militants in the coalition’s aggressive push toward Mosul aimed at unshackling the strategic city from the terror group’s brutal control.

Voices from Mosul: ‘We want life back to normal’

CNN’s Arwa Damon, Nick Paton Walsh, Hamdi Alkhshali and Ben Wedeman reported from near Mosul, and Tim Lister from Irbil, while Euan McKirdy wrote from London. CNN’s Tim Hume, Angela Dewan, Nicole Gaouette and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

By Ben Wedeman, Arwa Damon, Nick Paton Walsh and Euan McKirdy