MARAWI CITY – With a grimace, Brig. Gen. Melquiades Ordiales of the 1st Marine Brigade recounted the painful gains made against Islamist militants here.
“It took us one week from this point to that point, to cross that street,” he said, casting his eyes to the other side of a two-lane road in the heart of this city, lined by three-story buildings shattered by air strikes and the remaining walls riddled with bullet holes. “It was really very, very tough.”
The grinding urban warfare that has destroyed much of the grandly named Sultan Omar Dianalan Boulevard shows just how much of a threat Islamic State is to the Philippines and potentially other countries in the Southeast Asian region.
But when the fighting started, authorities were unfazed. After the Islamic State-backed militants took over large parts of this picturesque, lakeside city in May, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana predicted the entire conflict would be over in one week.
Now, after four months of intense aerial bombardment and house-by-house battles, commanders believe they are in the final stages of the operation to oust the rebels from here.
In the past two weeks, military officials say they have conquered three militant bastions, including a mosque, and restricted about 60 remaining guerrillas to about 10 devastated city blocks in the business district. Patrols have been increased on the lake to prevent the supply of armaments and recruits to the holed-up militants.
Military officers who have skirmished for years with Islamic insurgents in Mindanao say the battle in Marawi has been more intense and difficult than earlier encounters.
The Islamic State militants are better armed, with high-powered weapons, night vision goggles, the latest sniper scopes, and surveillance drones, said Capt. Arnel Carandang, of the Philippines Army First Scout Ranger Battalion.
He said he has served for almost a decade in the remote jungles and mountains of Mindanao that has long been wracked by insurgencies. Now, Carandang says, the military is in unfamiliar urban terrain.
The militants have exploited the battlefield to their advantage and held off Philippines forces despite a 10-to-1 numerical advantage for the government troops.
Borrowing heavily from Islamic State tactics in the Iraqi city of Mosul, they have surrounded themselves with hostages and used snipers and a network of tunnels.
Marawi’s underground drainage system and “rat holes” – crevices in the walls of high floors allowing access to adjacent buildings – have enabled the rebels to evade bombs and remain undetected, soldiers at the battlefront said.
“We believe there have been some foreign terrorists that have been directing their operations that’s why they are, how do I define this, really good,” said Carandang.
“We have seen some cadavers of foreigners. Some are white, some are black and some tall people we guess are Asians (from outside the Philippines). We have been hearing in their transmissions some English speaking terrorists.”