On the Road to Mosul With Iraq’s Golden Brigade

WIB front November 2, 2016 0

Matt Cetti-Roberts photo Elite Iraqi troops retake town of Bartella by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS A soldier from the Iraqi Army’s Golden Brigade ushers a party of...
Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Elite Iraqi troops retake town of Bartella


A soldier from the Iraqi Army’s Golden Brigade ushers a party of journalists down a dusty side street in the town of Bartella and points to a flattened pile of concrete. The rubble is all that’s left of a building after a coalition air strike.

When the bomb hit, at least one Islamic State militant was hiding in the structure. We know this because a large blackened piece of a foot lies baking in the midday sun.

It has been sitting there for at least two days. The smell is ripe.

One member of our group, a translator called Ali, starts happily taking pictures with his iPhone. Six months ago, he barely escaped Mosul with his wife and children.

The journey involved sneaking through Islamic State lines and luckily finding a safe path through the minefields that surround Iraq’s second largest city. Ali still has relatives living in Mosul under the brutal terrorist group’s rule.

For him, this is personal.

Golden Brigade soldiers travel through Bartella on the back of an armored Humvee. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

On Oct. 21, 2016, the Golden Brigade, one of Iraq’s elite special operations units, recaptured Bartella. Islamic State fighters took over the town as they pushed into the Nineveh plains in August 2014. At that time, approximately 30,000 Iraqis lived here, mainly Christians and Assyrians.

Situated on the main highway between Erbil and Mosul, Bartella is a strategic point. On Oct. 17, 2016, the Iraqi Army’s started down the route as part of a multi-pronged push towards Islamic State’s de facto capital in the country.

This marking on the door of a former Islamic State headquarters warns troops there is an improvised bomb inside. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The Golden Brigade found that two years of Islamic State occupation were not kind to Bartella. Many streets are full of rubble and overgrown weeds. We see the occasional burned-out shop and a lot of militant graffiti.

Right now, the town is still a front line. Before residents can return and rebuild, someone will have to remove hundreds of improvised explosive devices and other dangerous ordnance the extremists left behind.

Iraqi soldiers put up this Christian cross after retaking Bartella, a now routine practice after liberating Christian and Assyrian towns. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Beyond Bartella, in other parts of the Nineveh Governorate, the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga have gradually retaken more ground from Islamic State. Christian and Assyrian militias contributed to some of the operations.

Many of these local troops escaped just before the extremists arrived. Some fled Mosul after militants demanded non-Muslims convert to Islam, pay a tax or suffer execution.

This stencil says the house is property of Islamic State. Below is the Arabic letter “nun,” which militants used to mark Christian or Assyrian homes. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

After seizing Bartella and other towns, Islamic State disparagingly branded non-Muslim homes with the Arabic letter nun. In some passages, the Koran refers to Christians as Nasarah, or inhabitants of Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The symbol is reminiscent of the Nazis marking Jews with a yellow Star of David.

Golden Brigade soldiers relax in the shade. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

During War Is Boring’s visit to Bartella, some of the Golden Brigade troops were resting, while others were still clearing portions of the town. Soldiers mentioned a militant appeared that morning, shot at their comrades and then disappeared.

An Iraqi Army engineer deals with a discarded suicide belt. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Islamic State hid improvised bombs throughout Bartella. Trying to advance quickly toward Mosul, the Iraqi Army couldn’t stop to disarm all of the devices. Someone else will have to clear the rest out later.

Iraqi Army engineers disarmed this improvised explosive device inside Bartella’s Mart Shmony Church. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Although rigged with explosives, Islamic State left the Mart Shmony Church standing as the Golden Brigade approached Bartella. Despite the well-publicized demolition of churches in Mosul, the terrorists used this Christian house of worship for their own purposes.

A list of banal tasks for ISIS fighters on a whiteboard in the Mart Shmony Church. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Empty ammunition boxes, stripper clips and bandoliers lie on a floor of the Mart Shmony Church. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Militants drew this flag on a wall of the Mart Shmony Church. After Iraqi troops liberated the town, someone came hit it with a boot as an insult. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
A Christian card saying “Do not be afraid, I am with you” lies on a tiled floor outside the ransacked library. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
A Golden Brigade soldier stands near a defaced statue in Bartella. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Islamic State fighters blotted out the faces on this Christian mural. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

While in control of Bartella, Islamic State fighters defaced numerous statues, murals and other depictions of non-Muslim figures. The extremist group claimed these icons were an affront to their puritanical, exclusionary beliefs.

One of Islamic State’s home-built rocket sits abandoned in a graveyard attached to the Mart Shmony Church. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The militants also smashed Christian gravestones and vandalized parts of the church.

A Christian flag hangs in the chapel of the Mart Shmony Church on the day that high ranking priests were due to arrive for the first time since August 2014. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Empty shell cases and machine gun belt links litter the ground inside Bartella. Matt Cetti-Roberts

The Iraqi Army’s fight for the town and the surrounding area was not easy. Although we don’t have official casualty figures, Golden Brigade soldiers mentioned comrades who died in the battle.

This TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launcher in Bartella is ready to support the Iraqi Army push on toward Mosul. Matt Cetti-Roberts
Beheaded by extremists, this statue depicting the Virgin Mary perches on a dirt pile where it was placed by Iraqi soldiers. Matt Cetti-Roberts
The deserted main street of what was once Bartella’s bazaar. Matt Cetti-Roberts

It’s hard to work out how much damage militants wrought on Bartella before the Iraqi Army arrived to liberate the town. In spite of the fighting, most houses seem intact.

The resting place of an Islamic State fighter. His severed foot was out in the street. Matt Cetti-Roberts

Still, when we visited Bartella, the aftermath of battle was obvious. Pieces of clothing poked from under nearby rubble.

The remains of a body is in there somewhere, but no one is in a hurry to bury it. For now, the remains will mark the spot where the coalition hit its mark.

The smell in certain parts of town hints at more corpses hidden in the debris. When the front line has moved far enough beyond Bartella, troops will clear the bodies and bombs Islamic State abandoned in the city.

Only then will the town be ready for its displaced residents to return and begin again.

Defused improvised explosive devices sit by the side of highway from Erbil to Mosul. Matt Cetti-Roberts

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