ERBIL, Iraq—Islamic State cut off cellular service to Mosul two years ago. Now Iraqi forces trying to recapture the city are trucking in portable cellphone towers—and encouraging residents to take advantage of restored coverage to call with useful intelligence.
Semi trucks carrying the towers roll in just behind front-line Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga units. Technicians are also repairing existing towers that were damaged by the militants.
The moves have restored cell service to most of Iraq’s second-largest city
“We are getting more phone calls, even though it’s still dangerous for people inside,” said Peshmerga Capt. Ghazi Rashid Hasan, who declined to give details citing operational security concerns.
Iraqi special forces entered Mosul’s city limits on Tuesday. Troops involved in the offensive said people in the city have called to provide important glimpses of militant tactics and positions.
Islamic State blew up some cellphone towers and cut power to others after taking control of Mosul in 2014, according to Iraqi soldiers. The militants threatened to kill anyone caught with phones or SIM cards.
During the years of Islamic State rule, some Mosul residents risked the wrath of the jihadist fighters and sneaked off to the outskirts of town, where they could get enough reception to secretly make calls, either to inform on the militants’ positions and tactics or simply to connect with friends and family.
Since the Mosul offensive began more than two weeks ago and cell towers were brought closer to the city, it has become safer and easier to call out.
People are calling on their own, and Iraqi forces are trying to solicit calls.
“We dropped leaflets with instructions and phone numbers to call and give information,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, an army spokesman, referring to the thousands of leaflets dropped by planes over the city in the days leading up to the assault.
Some cellphone companies are helping the effort by providing inexpensive service packages. Kurdish cellular phone company Korek Telecom just kicked off a new rate plan for people in Mosul: five hours of talk time for about 50 cents, according to a spokesman. Calls normally cost about six cents a minute. Typically people in Mosul get their accounts topped up by friends or family outside the city, who just need to know the phone number in order to add credits.
Near Faziliya, a village east of Mosul that was recaptured from Islamic State just days ago, Humvees and armored vehicles pass a new cellphone tower, just out of Islamic State mortar range.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have made restoring cellphone service a priority in other campaigns to recapture territory from Islamic State. In November, as Kurdish troops descended on the militant-held city of Sinjar, a portable cell tower rolled along behind.
“It’s happened for the past two years actually,” said Capt. Hasan. “Whenever we have control of an area, they come in and fix the towers.”
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