I went to the front lines with Iraqi troops fighting the Islamic State on the road to West Mosul
by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
The rhythmic thump of a helicopter reverberates though the cold, clear morning sky.
The source of the noise — an Iraqi Mi-28NE gunship — straightens out after performing a slow banking turn. Unguided white-tipped rockets suddenly fly from beneath its stubby wings, dirty black smears of smoke trailing behind them as they speed toward a target.
The helicopter is nearby, but the delay between seeing the rockets fire and hearing the popping sound caused by their launch is eerily long. The helicopter fires two salvos of two rockets before it wheels away — flying in a low, long circuit which passes the sun and causing those below to strain through narrowed eyes to catch a glimpse.
Sitting on the Nineveh floodplain, the low rise, sprawling city of Mosul is split into two by the River Tigris. The eastern side of the city was recaptured from the Islamic State in early January 2017 after 100 days of battle, giving the Iraqi Security Forces — or ISF — 26 days to re-organize and prepare for the third phase of the operation.
I’ve linked up with the ISF on the second day of offensive to retake western Mosul. The Iraqi military, with extensive coalition support, is using just about every weapon at its disposal to try and clear a path to the city from the south.
This is also the 126th day of the overall offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the temporary capital of the Islamic State in the country.
Today’s assault is taking place in a rural setting dotted with small settlements, and is part of a broad advance by Iraqi forces. The fighting to come when they reach Mosul’s western half may be more difficult than the east.
The western neighborhoods of the city are much older and more compact than the eastern ones. From a military standpoint this means that the attacking troops may not be able to rely on vehicle mounted support weapons, such as the ever present armored Humvees — used by all sides in the conflict — which will be unable to maneuver in the tight alleys and streets.
“In the west, it’s a high-density environment,” U.S. Air Force Col. August “Pfoto” Pfluger told Los Angeles Times correspondent Nabih Bulos. “People live in apartment buildings and areas that are in much closer quarters.”
On the flip side, this could also reduce the damage from suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices that the occupying militants could otherwise employ.
Fortified in the city, the Islamic State has had more than two years to prepare for the clearly-anticipated assault. Recent reports suggest that the defenders have smashed holes through walls to allow hidden movement between buildings. There are an estimated 750,000 residents trapped in western Mosul, including those from nearby villages who have been pulled back for use as human shields.
Today, however, Mosul itself is a more distant concern. For the Italian- and American-trained Emergency Response Division — or ERD — soldiers and Federal Police officers that are slowly advancing along the valley beneath the loitering gunship, the village of Albu Saif is the more pressing target.
The road they follow leads up to a ridge that runs from east to west. Occasional leaflets, dropped by the Iraqi Air Force to warn residents of the impending operation, flutter in the breeze before landing on the wasteland either side of the road.
The landscape here, some four miles south of Mosul, is made up by steep valleys and ridges covered in patches of dirty green grass which sprouted over winter, thanks to a few months without the harsh Iraqi sun. With the temperature hovering just above 32 degrees Fahrenheit for the start of the morning’s operation, all of the men taking part in the advance are wrapped up warmly.
On the horizon off to the east, a large column of smoke rises, fanning out and fading into the clear blue sky. The sound of explosions, both distant and near, are heard almost constantly across the battlefield.
Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, also known as the Hash’d Shaabi, are on the left of the advance with a mix of ERD and Federal Police on the right spreading toward the Tigris River. A day later, Iraqi Special Operations Forces, also known as the Golden Division, will carry out a river crossing, traversing the Tigris using pontoon bridges.
Albu Saif, today’s target, is a small settlement mounting a spur just beyond the ridge ahead of the PMUs. It won’t be an easy town to take. One road heads north from the southern side. The western and eastern sides butt into steep slopes, and the northern end of the village is exposed to Islamic State positions at Mosul International Airport.
The airport to the north — which Iraqi troops would go on to capture on Feb. 24 — is why this village holds particular strategic importance. The airport is a key target as it can serve as a staging point while Iraqi troops push into Mosul proper.
Take Albu Saif, and the ISF can take the airport.
The column is entirely mechanized and has a varied selection of vehicles. The ERD’s armored Humvees, painted green, are accompanied by those of the Federal Police — painted in a distinctive two-tone blue camouflage.
The Federal Police also have several M1117 Guardian armored vehicles. The armament of these is not consistent, but usually consists of one Browning .50-caliber M2 heavy machine gun paired with a Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher mounted in a one-man turret. Just behind the lead vehicles are U.S. Special Forces advisers in Oshkosh M-ATVs and BAE RG-33 MRAP vehicles equipped with remote-controlled grenade launchers and machine guns.
A single tank, a sand colored M-1A1M detached from the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division, moves along the road, the sound of its whining turbine engine and clanking tracks filling the air.
While the troops move forward, attack helicopters have continued to pound Albu Saif. The Mi-28 on station is accompanied by a Bell IA-407 armed with a .50-caliber gunpod and unguided rockets. They take turns carrying out attack runs, and the rockets of the Bell boom as they leave the pod mounted on the right side of the aircraft.
The rockets’ impact thumps through the air as the troops advance.
The chin turret of the Mi-28 swivels as the gunner checks out targets in the village. Both helicopters start to make low swooping gun and rocket runs as the troops approach the top of the ridgeline.
In the distance, other pairs can be seen at work — Eurocopter EC635s, Mi-35s and lumbering Mi-17s all circling over different parts of the front line.
Troops pause at the top of the ridge while nearby Islamic State militants send rounds over their heads. The soldiers push east and west, taking up firing positions. A headquarters element forms up behind buildings in a natural depression — an old Iraqi Army military base, out of sight from the village.
As vehicles pass by, a Federal Police explosive ordnance demolition specialist checks out the body of an enemy fighter lying on the road along the top of the hill.
The dead man and a second militant lie around 20 feet apart. Whatever hit them has rendered their bodies into a shapeless mass of clothing and remains. A small amount of fresh blood seeps from the body onto the road. Both men were travelling by motorbike — the bike now lies wrecked and smashed, off to one side.
A sprinkling of Kalashnikov ammunition in pristine condition litters the road.
The specialist finishes his inspection, making sure that the body on the road is not booby-trapped. The other body can wait. The specialist says that the helicopters hit the men not long before the troops arrived. It’s possible the fighters were killed as they attempted to change positions.
The helicopters continue with their job, as airdropped munitions hit suspected Islamic State positions nearby and off where other Iraqi units are operating. A lone, eight-engine B-52 Stratofortess is visible high in the sky, one of many coalition aircraft waiting to be given coordinates to drop their bombs.
The American Special Forces arrive on the hill. Some fan out, taking up positions from where they can also cover Albu Saif, while others park next to the headquarters troops where they dismount and discuss the operation with Iraqi commanders.
During the pause, ERD troops use the time constructively — a drone operator launches a remote controlled DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter into the sky.
The Islamic State also uses drones, however the extremists — who have a variety of fixed wing and rotor unmanned aerial vehicles — modify their quadcopters to drop explosives. Either way, the high resolution video feed available from the onboard cameras is an important tool for both sides in the conflict.
Buzzing furiously as it accelerates into the air, the drone becomes a white speck as its operator squints through the reflected sunlight at the tablet computer mounted on top of the control unit. The tablet relays a live feed of Albu Saif from above as the pilot and another officer discuss what they are seeing.
Albu Saif is now covered from land and air by weapons from several directions, belonging to both Iraqi and coalition forces. Occasional shots ring out from heavy machine guns as weapons operators find targets in the village.
With the break over, five ERD Humvees line up on the road that leads into the village. Their gunners fire 12.7-millimeter and 14.5-millimeter heavy machine guns in short bursts into buildings, the bullet impacts visible by puffs of white dust. Islamic State fighters in village return fire with sporadic shots.
Single shots are also fired by the U.S. Special Forces vehicles, their remote weapons stations slewing back and forth as gunners search for new targets with turret mounted thermal cameras.
Looking beyond the village from this position, Mosul sprawls across the Nineveh floodplain, close enough that the distinctive Gogjali television mast is easily discernible. With a whoosh and a crump, a large bomb drops from a coalition aircraft and explodes.
Dirty black smoke is followed by large amounts of concrete dust hurled into the air by the blast.
The Iraqi forces reorganize, shake out into formation and move off along a tall, beige concrete blast wall that once marked the Islamic State’s front line. Someone from the Emergency Response Division has already tagged part of the wall with his unit’s name. On the horizon, and in nearby captured villages to the west, plumes of dust indicate the passage of troops moving to the front through recently captured areas.
Other armored vehicles and men — reserves — are arriving from the rear to reinforce positions.
At a break in the blast wall, Federal Police troops take a break and adjust their gear. Men sit in the shade provided by their vehicles as four police officers walk by carrying a tripod-mounted SPG-9 recoilless gun. Flies swarm everywhere, and some Iraqis swat them away angrily, while others ignore them. Another pair of attack helicopters, Eurocopter EC635s, fly overhead having taken over duties in the area.
At the rear of a stationary Humvee, Lt. Ali of the Iraqi Federal Police, originally from Basrah, explains that the village will be attacked from two sides, the south and west, in an L shaped assault with combined police and ERD units.
He says they have no information on how many enemy fighters are within the village, but he doesn’t seem to view this as a problem.
So far the ISF and coalition have taken out one suicide car bomb in the area that attempted to attack their troops. Several others have targeted other parts of the battlefield, including one driven by Abu-Zakariya Al Britani — a British extremist formerly known as Ronald Fiddler — which hit a military base to the southwest of Mosul.
In a nearby valley, part of the force has stopped for lunch. The soldiers and police eat a meal of rice and beans, taking care to keep away the flies, which constantly try to land on their food. Some laugh as a soldier splutters and spits, attempting to dislodge one of the insects which decided to land in his mouth.
On the top of a spur on the eastern side of the valley, ERD soldiers wait in a small group. One uses a telescopic sight attached to the rail of his Croatian VHS-2 bullpup rifle to study Albu Saif and the landscape beyond. Occasional sniper rounds crack and whizz over their heads. The gunner of an ERD Humvee mounting a 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missile launcher uses the weapon’s thermal sights to search for Islamic State vehicles and troops.
An ERD general arrives to issue orders, and everyone mounts up. The Islamic State know the troops are here, but it’s not the soldiers’ intention to attack from this point. The men and vehicles in this position are just a feint, a ruse to make Albu Saif’s defenders think that the ISF will attack from this angle.
Trundling back toward the blast wall, the ERD and Federal Police stop on a dusty patch of open ground, hidden from the village by a gently rising hilltop, and the vehicles slowly form into two columns.
Gunners carefully check their weapons. Not only do most of them have a vehicle-mounted heavy machine gun, they also have personal rifles, PKM machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The tips of weapons that make up a small arsenal poke into the sky, barely visible over the welded and bolted turret armor of the vehicles — each gunner is capable of putting down a significant amount of fire if needed.
Extra RPGs are stowed on the back of vehicles and the men get ready. Soldiers and police swing open their vehicles’ heavy, armor plated doors, climb in and slam them shut with distinctive clunks.
More soldiers cling to the back of cargo-bearing Humvee variants, some standing casually on welded footplates, others squeezing in between the blanket bags and personal effects that fill the rear compartments surrounded by all too flimsy-looking armored plates.
At 1:45 p.m., the column bounces forward, toward the hilltop and the village beyond.
An armored cargo Humvee stops — a single RPG pokes abruptly from between the mattresses filling its rear section, a shiny and slightly dented cap covering its fuse. An RPG gunner hops out and loads the grenade into his launcher while another man grabs a rocket-carrying backpack, before both disappear into another vehicle.
To the right of the vehicles, other Iraqi units are fighting their way into Albu Saif, where dismounted soldiers are already moving cautiously between some of the homes. To the front, on the road that leads alongside and into the western section of the settlement, an ERD Humvee burns fiercely after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
Rounds crack and thump through the air as Iraqi troops and Islamic State militants exchange fire. A soldier with a bloody stomach grimaces as his comrades lift him into an ambulance, where the waiting medics begin treatment as soon as he lies down.
Behind the Humvee, a Federal Police M1117 armored vehicle, its gunner ducking up and down in his hatch checking targets, starts to engage a building with a turret-mounted Mk 19 grenade launcher. Until a few minutes ago, a crew member hung from the side door filming the troop’s advance with his mobile phone … the device’s flashlight on — pointlessly — in the bright sunlight.
The door is still open and facing away from the enemy, but he has wisely ducked inside.
The cargo Humvee gunner, wearing earmuffs against the cold and the noise, fires his turret-mounted DShK machine gun. Firing two-to-three round bursts into the village, the slow sharp staccato thump of each shot creates a shockwave that dislodges the sandy dust clogging every nook and cranny of the vehicle. The dust rises up, before settling in another part of the bodywork.
Vehicles have now started to trickle into the valley to the west of the village, and another gunner fires from a turret as a soldier uses a pair of binoculars to scan the side of the village.
This is the start of the flanking attack that will allow troops to enter the settlement from the west. The ERD troops are experienced soldiers and know their jobs, having already taken part in house-to-house fighting in eastern Mosul to clear out Islamic State units that stayed behind to fight.
Coming under the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, the U.S. and Italian trained ERD — also known as the Rapid Response Division — comprises six battalions of highly trained troops considered in Iraq to be a part of the special forces, but outside of the Iraqi Army, much like the Iraqi Special Operations Forces or Golden Division.
Original members of the ERD, who wear U.S.-style camouflage and wield Croatian VHS-2 bullpup rifles, were drawn from Iraqi SWAT units after passing a rigorous selection course. Initially formed into a brigade, the conflict with the Islamic State saw the ERD expand to a divisional unit.
The men here today are part of the ERD’s 3rd Battalion, also known as the Scorpions — their emblem is proudly displayed on their vehicles.
The convoy of vehicles stops again. At the rear of the advance, some 300 meters away, three men are working on the grassy edge of the road. They wave at other troops nearby, motioning for them to get back. Vehicles reverse and men take cover behind them. EOD specialists have found an IED.
A small wisp of smoke can be seen as they light a fuse and trot back to cover. With a low thump the device detonates, throwing dirt into the air, and a technician returns to inspect the site of the explosion.
During the pause, a long black object tumbles lazily through the air 50 meters away from the cargo Humvee — a malfunctioning RPG fired by militants. It hits the ground behind the vehicles and explodes harmlessly away from the troops.
Slowly moving forward, more police and ERD vehicles drive into the valley and take a winding path, guns firing into the village as they move. The smell of propellant hangs in the air as gunners suppress the buildings that line the top of the valley. A few hundred meters away to the west, the U.S. Special Forces vehicles sit on another ridge line providing overwatch.
Anyone who was still clinging to the backs of the vehicles now jumps out and begins jogging alongside, keeping the Humvees between them and the village. When the front of the column is level with the last houses in this part of the village, everyone stops and forms a support line.
The crew of an M1117 spot what they think is a militant position and start to fire grenades at a rooftop doorway. The explosive rounds detonate on the wall as the gunner walks his fire into the shadows, before other nearby vehicles join in targeting the house, their rounds kicking up dust and pockmarking the walls.
The concussion from two Humvees, both mounting single ZPU 23-millimeter auto cannons, causes dust to rise from the ground around them as they fire.
The ERD soldiers then form into small teams. They will be the first men assaulting the concrete cinder block houses on this side of the village, while vehicle gunners stay behind to provide covering fire. The men jog up the hill and one fires his RPG launcher at a house atop the hill before joining his colleagues now walking briskly up the slope.
Back at the support line, other soldiers pick up PKM machine guns and personal rifles to add extra weight to the fire coming from the vehicles. Orders are shouted to cease fire as the first men get to the high walls surrounding Albu Saif’s western gardens.
Some gunners switch fire to new targets away from the teams. Several soldiers remaining at the vehicles also listen to portable radios for progress reports as the teams reach the first homes and start clearing them, room by room.
From a distance, we can hear the muted sound of weapons being fired indoors.
The ERD teams are hard at work.
Something detonates inside a house at the top of the hill. One soldier says an Islamic State fighter just blew himself up. There is no word on any other casualties.
At the cargo Humvee, the gunner throws out handfuls of empty 12.7-millimeter cases before starting the process of reloading belts — no mean feat since the new ammunition comes from Russian style ammunition cans which are slowly opened with a set of pliers like a can of corned beef.
He removes each round from the box, pushing them home into the black metal belt. When finished he throws the tin into the grass, picking up another and starting again. Sweat covers the face of another gunner as he tends to his heavy caliber weapon. The Federal Police’s armored vehicle gunner slips more rounds into the feed belt of his grenade launcher.
Heading up the slope into the western side of Albu Saif is a hard slog. At the top, through the side gate of a cleared house with a garden, soldiers take turns looking across a street and into the town.
The team prepares to move across the street. They peek from another gate, and covering each other, they sprint into another house. The soldiers breach into the building without firing a shot, but the sound of firing from inside other homes is evidence that other teams remain busy.
Back in the garden, an ERD drone operator readies his machine as a colleague calls in the coordinates for an air strike on a nearby house. He walks around talking in Iraqi Arabic on a small radio. Another man searches the garden for possible IEDs, inspecting parts of the yard that catch his eye.
The house, apart from its recently broken windows and smashed doors, appears to be in good condition and looks to have been inhabited by someone until recently.
Across the dusty road from the house the teams have cleared the closest side of the block. The drone operator sets up shop and his flying camera buzzes high into the sky as he peers at the footage being sent back.
Soldiers stand guard on corners as others move in groups and begin to push down one of the alleys leading off the main street. They move carefully, their weapons ready and pointing wherever they look, covering alternate angles and scanning windows, doors and gateways for possible militants. Their footsteps kick up dust from the ground.
The alley is overgrown and neglected — patches of weeds have sprung up next to walls where no one has walked for some time.
At the entrance of the alley, soldiers watch the team move forward, relaying information to a nearby commander. Meanwhile, the commander alternates between shouting orders and speaking into his radio as he juggles with countless tasks.
Back in the alleyway, the soldiers kneel down next to the walls … and wait.
Whoosh. Crump. A coalition air strike hits a home 100 meters away. The soldiers carry on, covering each other as they press down the alley.
Just ahead, the track between the houses bends to the left. The ERD team slowly moves forward along the left side of the alley when an RPG detonates on the opposite side. When the smoke clears there is very little damage— a testament to solid, concrete Iraqi construction.
An ERD soldier breaks cover and engages the Islamic State position around the corner. As he ducks, bullets hit a wall on the opposite side of the street. He jumps out to fire again before punching the air and letting out a whoop as he returns to cover.
One ERD team member limps back for treatment, his leg injured by shrapnel or a stone thrown up by the explosion.
Having located the militants the team start to pull back — possibly so they can relay coordinates up the alleyway for an air strike. The team bounds back in pairs, one man covering the other, continuously scanning homes and gardens on each side of the alleyway. His partner having stopped, one soldier begins to move, looks at a nearby house and lets out a shout.
An Islamic State fighter has suddenly appeared, just a few meters away.
In one smooth motion, the soldier shoulders his rifle. Looking over his sights, he aims at the target and shoots, squeezing the trigger multiple times to fire a succession of fast aimed single shots at the target while still on the move.
As other members of the team lay down fire, the soldier ducks into a garden, covering his partner who runs past the gate. Rounds from the rest of the team kick up dust around the new Islamic State position as the two men run to a wall back at the entrance of the alleyway.
Shooting across the village has picked up, and a nearby Mi-28 opens fire with its 30-millimeter canon. It sounds as if most of the Federal Police and ERD are now in contact.
Explosions ring out across Albu Saif as the two soldiers take it in turn to reload the clear plastic Heckler & Koch G36 magazines used on their VHS-2 rifles. One man reaches into a pouch and pulls out 5.56-millimeter rounds, shoving them into his magazines while his partner keeps watch. Once finished, they swap roles and the second man reloads his magazines.
An explosion rings out farther down the main street of the village, and a large amount of shooting erupts from inside a house — kicking up more dust.
Another group of soldiers have encountered another Islamic State position.
The firefight is developing. In a coordinated fashion, Islamic State fighters have moved through prepared tunnels and holes between buildings to spring an assault. The initial weight of fire wounds several soldiers and policemen.
An Iraqi major stands inside the front of a long disused shop — just a concrete shell with metal doors. He speaks tersely into a radio as an ERD trooper appears, limping. The soldier has been wounded in the leg, not seriously but enough to require evacuation. ERD soldiers and recently arrived Federal Police reinforcements cover him as he does his best to get across the road.
As the wounded soldier crosses a barbed wire fence, other men shout. They’ve spotted a drone flying along the valley, but this one doesn’t belong to the ERD or Federal Police.
Instead of a helicopter, this UAV is a white remote-controlled plane. It flies from the north, following the valley — no one knows if it belongs to the U.S. Special Forces or the Islamic State. ISF located in another part of the village start to fire, attempting to shoot it down — and it disappears from view.
The injured ERD trooper hobbles into the valley supported by other soldiers. A waiting Humvee pulls up to take and drives him away from the village to an unarmored ambulance which will in turn transport him to a nearby field hospital staffed by members of the NYC Medics, a non-government organization.
As the ambulance pulls away from the village the shooting continues, albeit at a slower pace, as the ISF start to gain the upper hand.
It’s now 4:15 p.m. and the sky has already started to take on the warm colors associated with a sunset. The village of Albu Saif will not be taken completely today but will fall the next day — costing the Islamic State 150 fighters, according to the ISF.
Most importantly, the fall of Albu Saif handed the ISF the strategic high ground above the airport, allowing the Iraqi soldiers to continue their push along the road to west Mosul.