A few residents have begun emerging from their homes in pockets of Mosul where Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State (Isis) fighters. In al-Zahraa, in the east of the embattled city, shopkeepers are sweeping away broken glass and neighbours are starting to interact again, days after the jihadists were ousted.

Battle for Mosul
A woman carrying a handicapped child flees the area during a lull in the fighting, as the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division engage Islamic State fighters while pushing into the Aden neighbourhood in MosulOdd Andersen/AFP

However, there is still an overwhelming sense of uncertainty as Iraqi special forces press ahead with their offensive on the Islamist group's last big stronghold in Iraq. Many residents fear that even if the entire city is reclaimed, the world's most dangerous militant group would return one day to impose its ultra-hardline version of Islam.

Battle for Mosul
A man pushes a woman in a cart in MosulGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
Battle for Mosul
Children emerge from their houses to greet soldier from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division during a lull in the fighting with Islamic State fighters while pushing into the Aden neighbourhood in MosulOdd Andersen/AFP
Battle for Mosul
A man and his child lead a sheep through Mosul's Aden neighbourhood during a lull in the fightingOdd Andersen/AFP

The militants swept through northern Iraq in 2014, seizing Mosul and nearby towns and villages. Cigarettes were banned, and anyone caught smoking was whipped. Women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe. Suspected adulterers were stoned to death in public.

Battle for Mosul
A man smokes a cigarette after fleeing Mosul on a truck transporting civilians to an IDP camp in KalakChris McGrath/Getty
Battle for Mosul
An Iraqi man who fled the fighting uses a pair of scissors to trim his beard after reaching the Iraqi army 9th armoured division base adjacent to the Al-Intissar neighbourhood of MosulOdd Andersen/AFP

"We need the army to stay here for 10 years to protect us," sewing shop owner Omar Sibawee told Reuters as special forces on a nearby rooftop opened fire at buildings where jihadists were holed up. "We are afraid they have sleeper cells in Mosul."

Battle for Mosul
Iraqis rest as they reach an area held by Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division for transport out of the combat zone in the Samah neighbourhood of MosulOdd Andersen/AFP
Battle for Mosul
A displaced Iraqi woman cries after she finds out that her 15-year-old son Maitham was killed by an Islamic State mortar in Samah neighborhood, MosulAhmed Jadallah/Reuters
Battle for Mosul
Front line medics from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division and volunteers from the Slovak charity Academy of Emergency Medicine treat an Iraqi girl with a shrapnel wound at an outdoor field clinic in the Samah neighbourhood of MosulOdd Andersen/AFP
Battle for Mosul
Volunteers treat 12-year-old Mohammed, who was injured during a double-barrelled mortar attack that killed his 15 year old neighbour Shafiq, at an outdoor field clinic in the Samah neighbourhood in MosulOdd Andersen/AFP

Just beyond Sibawee's home is one of the spots where IS beheaded people. The militants insisted that adults and children gathered to watch. "They used to always slaughter the former soldiers and policemen. It was horrible to watch," Sibawee said. "As they sliced their heads they would tell us 'liberate yourself from the apostates'." Iraqi forces have captured several areas of eastern Mosul during the offensive, expected to be the biggest battle in Iraq since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Battle for Mosul
A commander from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division calls his men back to a previous position as they come under fire from IS fighters while pushing into the Aden neighbourhood in MosulOdd Andersen/AFP
Battle for Mosul
Iraqi special forces soldiers point guns at part of Mosul controlled by Islamic State fightersGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
Battle for Mosul
A suspected Islamic State jihadist walks between two vehicles after his capture by Iraqi forces near the ancient town of Nimrud, south of MosulSafin Hamed/AFP
Battle for Mosul
A suspected Islamic State member is guarded by a soldier from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division at a temporary base in the Samah neighbourhood of MosulOdd Andersen/AFP

The battle could drag on for months. Western Mosul is expected to witness much tougher urban warfare, with many narrow streets and alleyways preventing movement by tanks and armoured vehicles. Improvised explosive devices, snipers and suicide bombers are still a constant danger across much of Mosul, capital of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate.

Battle for Mosul
An Iraqi special-forces soldier holds a school book issued by Islamic State fighters in a school in MosulGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
Battle for Mosul
Smoke rises from an area controlled by the Islamic State after a member of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service fires mortars during a fight with Islamic State militants in the al-Zahraa neighborhood of MosulAhmed Jadallah/Reuters
Battle for Mosul
A soldier from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division wipes a comrade's forehead after removing shrapnel from his upper body at an outdoor field clinic in the Samah neighbourhood of MosulOdd Andersen/AFP