Fears of bombs, IS cells still haunt Mosul
MOSUL - Hussein Faleh has only one dream: to return to his home in the ravaged Old City of Iraq's Mosul.
But, more than four months after government forces declared victory in their operation to push the Islamic State group out of its largest stronghold, moving back into his house remains a distant prospect.
"I would love to go back and rebuild my house, but the security forces don't allow it," the unemployed father-of-three, 29, said.
While the fierce street battles to reclaim the winding alleyways of the second city's historic centre ended in July, officials and residents say the deadly legacy of jihadist rule still haunts Mosul's old heart.
The famed area that once boasted traditional houses, mosques and churches is now largely a deserted tangle of metal and rubble -- stalked by fears of booby traps left behind by IS or sleeper cells of fighters ready to strike at any moment.
"Civilians regularly fall victim to explosions," said Ghazwan al-Dauaui, who is in charge of human rights for the local authorities.
- 'Hiding in cellars' -
Only the sound of the nearby Tigris river or the noises of stray animals can be heard among the ruins of buildings that still bare IS slogans.
Every once in while, a blast rings out as the security forces combing the Old City detonate ordnance left behind.
But their main job still remains hunting for any IS members who might have managed to go to ground when government troops arrived.
"IS fighters are still hiding in cellars where rubble has not been cleared away," said Khalaf al-Hadidi, a member of the provincial council.
"They survive thanks to stores of food and water."
Hadidi said that Iraqi personnel regularly flush out and kill fighters but they "do not announce" it because the authorities are desperate to convince the population that they are finished with IS.
In this limbo of fear, it is no surprise that rumours swirl.
One has it that some jihadists manage not to come out for months as they feed intravenously and wear adult nappies.
- Wind in the ruins -
Sociologist Hamed al-Zubeidi, who is based in Mosul, says that so long as these "sleeper cells" remain, life cannot return to the city's historic centre.
"It delays the reconstruction and will lead to a new collapse of security," he said.
For now, life in Mosul appears to be a tale of two cities.
Compared to the west bank of the Tigris where the Old City is located, the districts on the east bank are "paradise", says 28-year-old civil servant Safad Yassin.
He has decided to rent a flat for his family across the river, while they wait, he hopes, to return to their home.
Provincial police chief Wathiq al-Hamdani says that in east Mosul "95 percent of residents have returned to their homes".
Some 39,000 families have supposedly moved back into outlying districts on the west bank but not to the Old City.
"Stabilising the situation will take some more time, a lot of effort and the rebuilding of public services," Hamdani said.
For the few who have returned, the nights in the Old City are filled with anxiety as each sound stirs fears of unseen threats.
"All sorts of rumours are spreading because of these noises," said Umm Mohammed, 33.
"But perhaps it is only the wind blowing through the ruins."