Fearless and Smiling, Kurdish Fighters Go on the Attack Against ISIS
Peshmerga targets the town of Bashiqa
by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
A loud crump sound shakes the group of journalists and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Some duck for cover, others just pause in place as a dust cloud rolls over them.
This time the cause of the explosion is friendly — one of the Peshmerga’s three Soviet-era T-55 tanks has fired its main gun. It won’t be the last as the Kurds fight to retake land from Islamic State in and around the town of Bashiqa on the road to Mosul.
The assault I’m witnessing is one of the many Kurdish contributions to the coalition effort to retake Iraq’s second-largest city from ISIS. The offensive began on Oct. 16, 2016 with an announcement on Iraqi T.V. by Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi. “The hour has come and the moment of great victory is near,” Al Abadi said.
The coalition to liberate Mosul includes U.S. and allied jets and Special Operations Forces, the Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, Iran-backed Shia militias and Christian fighters from such groups as the NPU and the Hashed Shaabi.
The Peshmerga joined the offensive on Oct. 17 with an attack from the Khazar front line around 40 kilometers from Erbil. The Kurds quickly captured eight villages during their initial advance and more in subsequent pushes.
Now it’s Oct. 19. I’m on the Bashiqa front line with the Peshmerga and another photographer, waiting for Kurdish forces on this front to join their comrades attacking from Khazar.
Mosul isn’t visible from here. All we can see is an expanse of flat, slightly undulating, arid ground covered with thinning yellow grass. A tarmac road leading to Mosul divides part of the front line, which is marked by several deep gouges — obstacles the Peshmerga constructed in order to trap vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
Coalition jets circle so high up that we can only hear the sound of their engines.
We visit a lightly fortified position along a berm that stretches into the distance. A light wind blows up a dusty haze and renders buildings as dark shapes on the horizon. The occasional thump of air strikes can be heard way off, some of the strikes apparently hitting the town of Bashiqa, which is hidden behind a hill. All that we can see of the town is the dust rising lazily into the air in the aftermath of bomb blasts.
Maj. Dildar Mohammed, one of the officers at the position, points to smoke in the distance. ISIS is burning tires to obscure targets from coalition jets, he explains. Everyone expects that the Peshmerga here will attack tomorrow, Oct. 20 — but Mohammed won’t confirm it. Nor will he say what his objectives are, although it’s worth noting that there are 11 villages between here and Mosul.
That there will be an offensive is a given. Vehicles belonging to the Peshmerga Supporting Forces Command — which oversees the Kurdish army’s armor, artillery and engineers — are everywhere. Vintage Soviet-made T-55. Chinese-made Type 69 tanks. Soviet MTLB armored personnel carriers. All probably captured from Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003.
There are trucks mounting Russian SPG-9 73-millimeter recoilless guns. MRAP armored vehicles belonging to the Peshmerga engineers park in a neat row. Other vehicles move into new positions, including a small convoy of Spartan light armored vehicles.
Everywhere, vehicle crews are relaxing, playing dominoes, drinking tea, listening to news on a small portable radio. No one seems tense.
We head back to a nearby headquarters and are told we can stay the night. An officer confirms that the offensive will indeed take place the next day. The mood here is more energetic. Officers gaze at maps as they plan for the advance on Mosul.
At 5:00 in the morning, the sky is just beginning to shade gray. A few Peshmerga warm themselves by fires burning between the vehicles. It’s quiet until it isn’t. Suddenly Peshmerga are everywhere. Men ready their equipment. Medics bustle about their aid station. Vehicle crews rev engines. An English-speaking Peshmerga motions for us to jump in the back of a battered Toyota pick-up.
Any barriers that were on the road have been removed. Peshmerga cluster on the shoulders, watching as colleagues line up and prepare to move forward. On one of the highest points next to the road, a truck mounting a small rocket launcher system waits to provide covering fire. Farther away, beyond Peshmerga lines, several engineers are checking out the road. A bulldozer fills the defensive trenches so that Kurdish vehicles can advance over them.
Trucks, Landcruisers, armored personnel carriers and tanks line up, their crews awaiting the command to attack.
Kurdish flags hang from every vehicle. Fighters shoot selfies and group portraits. Some wear uniforms. Others are clad in the traditional baggy Kurdish dress. They grin and flash v-for-victory signs with their fingers.
Without any apparent signal, the Peshmerga take off toward Mosul. In the distance, smoke drifts from the site of a coalition air strike.
The Peshmerga who aren’t riding in vehicles walk down the road behind the convoy. Some in large groups, others by themselves. The mood is upbeat. The convoy stops occasionally so that the engineers at the front can check for IEDs. No one is in a hurry. Commanders want to keep their vehicles and men together.
The tanks move to the front of the column, belching diesel fumes, their tracks squeaking on the cool asphalt. The whole Kurdish force pivots left off the road, filing onto a rugged dirt track.
It’s easier to walk than try to stay in the back of our bouncing truck. The track is narrow and the Peshmerga foot soldiers must share it with numerous vehicles. No one strays too far. The risk from IEDs is too great.
There’s a loud shrieking noise, followed by a crack. Some people duck. Others laugh at them. The rocket launcher I’d seen earlier lobs a few rounds into ISIS territory. A Peshmerga gunner fires a heavy machine gun two or three times at a target I can’t see.
Off to our right the town of Bashiqa is now visible. A Peshmerga walking nearby motions to us that there will be snipers in the town. Smoke columns rise into the air from somewhere inside Bashiqa.
The Peshmerga push on. An armored bulldozer scrapes a safe lane for everyone to follow.
A puff of dust and the sound of an explosion to our right. An ISIS mortar shell has exploded 200 meters away — luckily nowhere near the column. Peshmerga tanks swivel their turrets, looking for targets. Ahead of us there’s a defensive berm running parallel to a deep trench. It’s unoccupied.
Beyond the barrier, some 500 meters away, is the village of Tiskharab — our current objective.
We move forward, keeping low behind an MTLB armored personnel carrier. More ISIS mortars explode. The Kurds’ rocket launcher fires over our heads. Bashiqa is cloaked in smoke and dust from the ongoing bombardment. The debris prevents ISIS fighters in the town from firing on our column as we approach Tiskharab.
One Peshmerga tells me that our collection of vehicles and troops is the southern wing of the operation. Farther north beyond Bashiqa, another force is advancing. The idea is for the southern and northern fronts to eventually link up and encircle Bashiqa, cutting it off from resupply and reinforcement.
It’ll take a separate operation to pry loose the ISIS fighters in Bashiqa.
The tanks open fire on Tiskharab. The Peshmerga add heavy machine gun fire to the fusilade. We take cover behind the berm. Coalition Special Operations Forces advisors move around the position. One warns us to look out for suicide bombers in trucks.
From their position on the berm, the Peshmerga fire into the village. The nearby tanks lash out with their coaxial PKT machine guns and turret-mounted DShK heavy machine guns.
Another mortar explodes a short distance away on the far side of the berm. A few minutes later, a mortar explodes a hundred meters behind us. It’s a reasonable guess that the militants are trying to bracket the berm, but whoever’s manning the mortar isn’t very good at his job.
A coalition plane roars high overhead and drops two bombs on Tiskharab. ISIS fighters plink the berm with small arms.
The Kurds split their force. Half of the vehicles loop around the berm along a track that leads to the village. Others stay behind to provide covering fire. An armored Humvee mounting a MILAN anti-tank missile system fires at a target in the distance.
Another mortar explodes 50 meters over our heads. Air-burst fuse. But it’s set for too high. The blast and shrapnel dissipate harmlessly.
There are now Peshmerga fighting house-to-house inside the village. Medics speed the wounded to the rear. A huge explosion in the distance could be an air strike or a suicide bombing.
A large group of Peshmerga forms up at the end of the berm next to the track that leads to the village. The Kurds patrol along the ditch, watching for anything that could be an IED.
We follow at a distance. A Peshmerga fighter, lugging a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and several rockets, speaks to us in perfect English. He says he lived lived in Britain for many years and has a British passport. “Most of these guys are my relatives,” he says of the men his group. He points to a captain at the front of the group. “He’s my uncle.”
The rocketeer explains that many of the Peshmerga aren’t drawing pay. “We don’t need money.”
Scaling the berm — and avoiding a possible IED someone spotted nearby — the Kurds train their weapons on a group of buildings in Tiskharab. They shoot at the buildings with PKMs, AK-47s and M-16s. The ISIS mortar has fallen silent.
The other photographer and I head back toward the headquarters. As we’re walking along the berm, a heavy-caliber round passes nearby — a sniper. More rounds strike the ground five meters away. We lie down and wait.
The sniper redirects his fire at a Peshmerga machine-gunner lugging an ancient-looking PKM. The gunner seems unfazed. He just keeps walking. We run.
Behind us, many more of Peshmerga have joined the fight in the village. Its fall is inevitable. Kurdish reinforcements stream past us as we stroll back to our original launching point. The Peshmerga look tired. It’s been a long day already and there’s bound to be much more fighting as the coalition creeps toward Mosul.
But the Peshmerga smile. They’re happy to be on the attack.