We Went Inside an Iraqi Camp as Bedouins Trained for Battle
Many of these men can’t return home until they defeat Islamic State
It’s springtime, and a group of Bedouin fighters in desert-pattern camouflage uniforms sing in a sprawling, lush field in northern Iraq.
In the middle of the group, three men dance and time their movements to the rhythm. The rest of the fighters surround them, singing and clapping in time.
Their cadences are illustrative of how the Bedouins’ traditions and nomadic way of life have endured for centuries. The melodies — primal and beautiful — hearken back to a previous age when life may have been simpler, but no less brutal.
Four-and-a-half miles away is the town of Basiqa, which is currently occupied by Islamic State. But these men are relaxing, having just finished a day training and preparing for combat against the extremist group.
The men are part of a new, mainly Sunni Arab army known as the national mobilization force. They’re also preparing to help retake Islamic State-held Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which is just 13 miles away.
But unlike other forces which might take part in a battle for Mosul, these men call the city and the surrounding Nineveh province home.
For them, this war is personal.
Islamic State captured Mosul in June after a lightning offensive from across the Syrian border. The defending Iraqi army had the advantage in numbers and equipment, but collapsed practically overnight. They abandoned millions of dollars worth of American-supplied weapons and vehicles.
Ten months later, there are rumors that Islamic State is fortifying Mosul — population 1.8 million — in preparation for a coalition assault.
Five hundred men are training at the camp near Basiqa. They vary in age from their late teens to early 60s. They’re practicing with Kalashnikov-type rifles, and learning how to hold the weapons in different firing positions.
They’re training how to fight in urban areas, too. But they don’t use any of the force’s scarce ammunition, except for some practice shooting at the camp’s range just before they graduate.
This is the third group trained so far, and the national mobilization force will use these men to support the recapture of Mosul. “They will be used to hold the ground once it has been taken by the Iraqi army,” one general, the camp’s assistant commander for training, tells War Is Boring.
U.S. Central Command — which oversees American forces in the Middle East — had announced that an offensive to retake the city could take place this spring, but officials have since backtracked from this commitment.
Kurdish, Iraqi and coalition military officials have either not settled on — or revealed — a date. It’s highly doubtful the coalition would disclose a date … if there was one.
One Kurdish fighter looks out toward the front line, which is just beyond the next hill. “I felt more in danger because I’m a Kurd,” he says. “They [Islamic State] attack everyone who isn’t like them.”
He’s training alongside Sunni Arabs, Yezidis and other groups from Nineveh. “I want to liberate the place I was born in,” he says.
Other men at the camp share his resolve. But many of these soldiers only have rudimentary military skills.
“We accept all people, experienced or not … they are all from Nineveh,” one of their commanders says. “Kurd, Yezidi, Shia, Sunni, Christians. Nineveh is a microcosm for all Iraq.”
He’s a Christian from Hamdaniyah, but the majority of fighters here are Sunni Arab Bedouins from the Rabia area near the Iraqi-Syrian border.
All of the fighters — and a few of their instructors — wear ski masks to conceal their identities. Many still have family members and loved ones trapped in Islamic State-occupied areas.
Another commander explains that Islamic State’s summer offensive displaced many of these recruits from their homes. They currently live in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.
But not everyone is inexperienced. Many of the military officers here are Iraqi army veterans, and some fought against American troops during the 2003 invasion.
A volunteer with a battered Chinese Kalashnikov rifle lies prone on the ground. His instructor watches him, notices something wrong and adjusts the fighter’s legs. He’ll shoot better this way.
The black-market rifle has seen better days. It appears worn and there’s visible pit-marks on the rifle’s metal surfaces. There are scars on its wooden fore-grip. A small piece of metal juts from the rear, which used to hold a stock.
These weapons are only for training purposes. They’re simply too few guns to go around, and they’re of poor quality — not enough to give the fighters much of a chance at holding a position or beating Islamic State in a fight.
Atheel Al Nujaifi, the exiled governor of Nineveh province, told us that the force purchased the weapons on the local black market. He added that the Iraqi central government doesn’t have enough weapons to equip his fighters.
But they’ve found sponsors elsewhere.
“Now we have approval from the Turkish government,” Nujaifi said. “They will give us equipment and weapons.”
Nujaifi set up the group with the idea that it will become part of the proposed Iraqi national guard — akin to the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an Assyrian Christian fighting force in the country.
“We are preparing those groups to be the core of the national guard,” he said.
Local forces will eventually form the national guard, which will answer to provincial governments. But the Iraqi parliament hasn’t yet passed the law to create the units.
“We are still waiting for approval from Baghdad,” a former Baathist general at the camp says.
The cash-strapped government in Baghdad still provides funding to the unit. The fighters received pay from the central government in February and a further payment was due in March — around $700 for each fighter.
“We came here and did not ask for any salary, but 20 days ago the central government gave some of the fighters and police salaries,” the general explains — referencing another camp where a future Mosul police force is taking shape.
To be sure, some of the generals fought against the United States in 2003, but they’re still looking for outside help … including from America.
“The [Americans] are very slow and don’t answer our requests,” the general adds. “We want American forces to support us as far as they can.”
The men say they felt coalition air strikes reverberating around the landscape the night before. Warplanes had struck Islamic State positions in Bashiqa.
There’s no doubt that Islamic State remains a looming threat. At the same time, rumors from within Mosul suggest the militants are dealing with serious economic and infrastructure problems.
“Daesh can’t give anything to the people [in Mosul],” Nujaifi said. “The salary, the economy, everything stopped. No fuel, no electricity, no health care.”
Nujaifi is confident that the coalition can drive Islamic State from Mosul. But it’ll require getting the locals on their side.
“I am sure fighting ISIS in Mosul is an easy fight, if we fight just ISIS in Mosul and if we don’t fight the citizens,” Nujaifi said. “But if we lose the citizens, it will be a problem.”
A group of around 20 fighters begin jogging in place during a warm-up exercise. One pupil makes a mistake, and his instructor barks out a command. The fighter gets on the ground and starts doing push-ups.
These men are part of a special force, which means extra training and exercises in hand-to-hand fighting. They practice kicks and punches before pairing off to throw each other to the ground.
This is only their second day of training in unarmed combat, so some of their moves are clumsy. They have a way to go before they’re proficient.
The general in charge of training moves to the concrete platform in the middle of the training field. Picking up a microphone, he addresses his troops through loudspeakers.
The fighters stop, form into squads and they listen. He gives an order, and they all rush forward, forming around their commander. The fighters flash “V for victory” signs.
“Long live Iraq!” they shout.
The general passes the microphone to a volunteer, who starts to sing. Some songs are in Arabic and others are in Kurdish. The fighters join in when they know the words.
This is a daily activity, carried out after training ends. Some men remove their masks and everyone smiles. Morale is high.
A little while later, the men unwind by donning tribal outfits, holding sticks and dancing. They have ecstatic grins on their faces. The day after we visited was a Friday — a day of rest.
While the volunteers sing, a fighter from Rabia sits a little way off, tears rolling down his cheeks. He tells us he’s here to fight for the Yezidis, and he cites Islamic State’s abuse of Yezidi women in neighboring villages.
“I am fighting for the Yezidis, for my land and for my country,” the fighter says.
The fighter, who is too afraid to give his name, fought with the Iraqi army as a sergeant for nine years in Mosul before the city fell. His eyes are bloodshot and there’s a sad tone to his voice.
“I did not leave when Daesh arrived,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “I fought for two days in the suburbs before Mosul fell. I saw my friends get killed by Daesh. We stayed and fought.”
“I am crying for all of Iraq,” he says. “I am praying for my city. I am sorry for this virgin land that has been dirtied by Daesh.”