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East Mosul Iraqis crave stability as army defeats Islamic State

By Michael Georgy

MOSUL (Reuters) - The teenage Islamic State militants who took over Mohamed Abdel Wahab's house and terrorized his family for three months are gone. But an Iraqi army victory in his east Mosul district hasn't made life easier, at least not yet.

Like hundreds of other anxious Iraqis, he and his family walked for several kilometers past demolished buildings on Tuesday to return to homes that were taken over by Islamic State.

"These gunmen were between 12 and 15 years old. They just appeared, pointed their weapons and said 'get out'," he said. "They placed snipers in our houses. They ran our neighborhoods."

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Walking in the other direction were families who had managed to hold on to their homes but were now fleeing fresh fighting in a few parts of Mosul that have not been retaken by the government forces from pockets of Islamic State resistance.

Many neighborhoods were destroyed, first by Islamic State and then by the Mosul offensive designed to retake the militants' last stronghold in Iraq.

Just four days ago, families were hiding in their homes here in the Al Araby district as soldiers fought the militants on nearby streets, with rows of buildings pockmarked by shooting or damaged by rocket fire.

Along the main road, displaced Iraqis walked by a huge crater left by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike. Plumes of white smoke rose after the latest strike.

The elderly were pushed in rickety wheelchairs or crude metal wheelbarrows towards an Islamic State flag that was half torn down. Women in black veils walked beside their husbands, families exhausted by the reign of terror, fierce fighting and a lack of basic services.

DESPERATE YOUNG BOY

There was no signs of shops or badly needed supplies, aside from the occasional bag of rice carried by women on their heads.

A young boy who was pleading for help for his grandfather asked whether his neighborhood had been liberated. He was ignored.

Many may be traumatized for some time by the rule of the jihadists, who swept into Mosul in 2014 virtually unopposed by the Iraqi army and started dictating all aspects of life, even beard and trouser length.

Memories of beheadings and executions are still fresh.

"They just lined people up and shot them in the head," said resident Mahmoud Selim.

These days, the militants are on the defensive. If they lose Mosul, the self-described caliphate which once straddled parts of Iraq and Syria is widely expected to collapse.

But the militants are likely to wage an insurgency in Iraq and inspire attacks in the West.

Having captured almost all of east Mosul, Iraqi forces are preparing to enter the west, where the battle is likely to be far more complex.

Army officers who were touring Al Araby and nearby districts seemed confident that the remaining militants holed up in homes seized from residents will be cleared out soon.

Their convoy snaked through streets and stopped at a large house overlooking a wooded area.

As a helicopter fired a machinegun at militant hideouts, a sniper fired in the officers' direction.

Omar al-Obaidi, one of the soldiers guarding the main street, said he made a lucky escape when Islamic State first arrived in 2014 and started killing members of the Iraqi security forces.

"They were driving me to be executed and they got distracted so I kicked open the window of the vehicle and escaped," he said.

It is easy for him to smile now when recalling the close call. But like others, he wonders how life got so bad for residents here, turning to conspiracy theories to make sense of it all.

"This was a big game by Americans and Iran to ruin Iraq," he said. "When Islamic State arrived with a small force the politicians and army ran away. Someone had to be behind them."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)