With Heavy Air Support, Kurdish Troops Go on the Offensive
Peshmerga push into Islamic State-held villages west of Kirkuk
This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part one.
Before dawn, the peshmerga prepare for fighting. A group of soldiers gather below the outpost, pointing down with the lights on their mobile phones and cracking open Soviet-style ammunition boxes, distributing the bullets.
Armed vehicles laiden with troops pass through the platoon as the Kurdish soldiers ready their equipment. Gen. Zirar arrives and gives a brief talk to the men.
Spying us standing off to one side, he wishes us good morning and waves cheerfully before jumping into a 4×4 and heading off to another unit.
Above — Kurdish peshmerga fighters cluster around ammunition boxes during early morning preparations for a large offensive west of Kirkuk. At top — peshmerga move to their start points on the morning of an offensive against Islamic State. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos
The two armored Humvees that left during the night return. The platoon strips off the vehicles’ sun canopies to add better visibility. More volunteer peshmerga arrive.
Moments later, we’re on the move.
Our 4×4 follows behind a larger convoy, which is moving adjacent to a large irrigation canal that leads to the front line. Ahead of us, there is a defensive line behind a berm divided in the middle by the canal.
The peshmerga cluster in groups on both sides of the canal and make last-minute adjustments to their weapons and equipment. Others look out into no-man’s land and a village in the far distance.
Three Kurdish peshmerga look out into no-man’s land as they wait for the order to advance. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Many fighters wear traditional Kurdish clothing instead of uniforms — meaning they’re volunteers, for the most part.
You can’t tell which unit any individual peshmerga belongs to by the clothes he wears. Some enlisted peshmerga don’t wear uniforms, and Fazer says that he and his group of volunteers sometimes wear uniforms when they fight.
It just depends on how the mood takes them.
An F-18 passes high over our heads — either American or Canadian, but we can’t tell. The warplane’s predatory silhouette and the noise of its twin engines makes everyone look up. Last night, the platoon’s captain called the coalition aircraft his “big brother.”
A coalition forces F-18 or CF-18 flies over peshmerga positions as it provides air support for a Kurdish offensive. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
In battle after battle here, the presence of coalition aircraft gives a morale boost — a big one — to troops on the ground. It’s easy to understand why … and it’s not just because of the extra firepower.
Zirar told me that from 1961 onward, in one form or another, the Kurds were the ones being targeted by aircraft – now they are the ones with air support.
The peshmerga on the other side of the canal begin pushing forward, protecting a large earthmover that is demolishing an old protective berm.
In the far distance, a peshmerga column with a tank and a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — or MRAP — wind along along a path in what was once no-man’s land. Hadji’s group of volunteer peshmerga look annoyed. They want to push forward, too.
A peshmerga fighter wears a leather harness holding ammunition belts for a PK machine gun as he waits to move forward with colleagues. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Ten peshmerga from our group begin patrolling forward as a large digger moves in. In two or three swift moves, the machine tears a hole in the defensive embankment.
We jump in our 4×4 and follow behind several peshmerga vehicles queuing at the breach. The engine revs and we bounce through the rough track and into no-man’s land.
Following behind Humvees and armed pickup trucks, we loop our way through an area that was once a buffer between Islamic State and the peshmerga. Dust kicked up by the vehicles obscures the landscape, turning the air outside the window into a murky brown.
Hadji Fazer (L) smokes as he watches peshmerga fighter get into a pickup truck as he and colleagues advance through no-man’s land. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The small convoy stops in a small settlement consisting of a few houses and a junction of man-made irrigation canals. Another unit — the one that left from the outpost opposite ours — arrives at the other side of the hamlet and pushes up along a parallel course.
Fighters and vehicles with heavy machine guns cover the advance.
A series of paved bridges pass over the irrigation canals’ sluice gates, which Islamic State blocked with large, concrete blast barriers. To the west, there is a small hill.
Peshmerga fighters attach a steel wire strop to a blast barrier, placed as obstacles by the Islamic State, as they attempt to clear the way for support vehicles. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The peshmerga and the volunteers start walking toward the hill as the sound of air strikes and occasional small arms fire boom in the distance.
The platoon’s vehicles, unable to cross the bridges, move up on one side of a huge canal to provide covering fire. One Humvee with towing wires stays behind to try and help drag the blast barriers away.
Some peshmerga make it to the western hilltop and take up firing positions, hunkering low in small groups. They start shooting at another small village beyond … occupied by Islamic State fighters who are now shooting back.
An armored Humvee manned by peshmerga fighters speeds along a track as it moves to a better firing position. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Back at the bridge, the peshmerga give up trying to move the barrier and a shot flies overhead with a crack immediately followed by a whizz. Those who can take cover do, even though we’re out of line-of-sight from whoever is shooting at us.
Two Humvees and an armed pickup truck start to lay down fire to our west, further toward the enemy on our side of the canal. More shots start to fly toward the peshmerga.
Unlike other recent offensives where Islamic State melted away in the face of air strikes and overwhelming numbers, it’s becoming quickly obvious that this time, the militants have decided to stay and fight.
Peshmerga fighters cluster on a hill as they take incoming fire from militants shooting from a village on the edge of the town of Mansuriya. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
It’s easy to see why. Taking these villages will bring the Kurds closer to Hawija – a major hub for Islamic State some 50 kilometers south of Kirkuk.
During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Hawija was widely considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Recent reports suggest there are violent disputes – and not for the first time – between armed groups in the city and Islamic State. Large groups of residents have also recently left the town to try and seek refuge in Kurdistan.
A heavy earthmover arrives to remove the barricades. The platoon’s Humvees pull back, cross the bridge and move to better positions on a road next to the hill.
The firing from the village intensifies.
A peshmerga fighter, manning with a PK general purpose machine gun, keeps low, between firing short bursts into a small village containing Islamic State militants. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Keeping low, we move to the reverse slope of the hill and join the rest of the peshmerga. Some take turns firing into the village. Others keep their heads down, waiting for the next move.
A pickup truck mounting a single KPV 14.5-millimeter heavy machine gun pulls up. The gunner stays crouched behind a rounded protective shield and fires short, carefully-aimed bursts into the village. Another truck-mounted heavy machine gun a hundred meters to our left opens up.
We hear a whoosh, followed by a crump, to our front right followed by a cloud of smoke and dust. A huge coalition bomb just hit the town of Mansuriya, some two kilometers away. Much like our location, peshmerga advancing on that town are taking fire from the Islamic State militants, including from mortars.
The air strikes are now so numerous that I lose count. After the day was over, U.S. Central Command issued a statement saying that 50 air strikes had been carried out in support of the peshmerga operation.
A peshmerga pickup armed with a KPV heavy machine gun fires at Islamic State positions in a nearby village. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The Kurdish fighters don’t pull any punches, letting loose with rocket-propelled grenades, several kinds of machine guns and sniper rifles. They stand, look into the village and then duck back down as the Islamic State militants return fire.
The firefight goes on like this for around 45 minutes, with air strikes continuing to hit across the battlefield. We hear a jet flying over us. Now a second quieter noise, sounding like a smaller jet, gets louder and louder. Two massive bombs drop from the sky and explode on two ends of the village – now about 500 meters away from us.
The blast wave washes over us and smoke, dust and debris fly into the air.
A peshmerga fighter uses a camera to take a picture of one of two large bombs, dropped by coalition aircraft, on Islamic State firing positions in a small village outside the town of Mansriya, west of Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The smoke hangs over the village as the firing from the village falls silent. Islamic State’s presence in the village has ended.
Some peshmerga pause to take pictures of the cloud. The crew of the KPV heavy machine gun add more rounds to their ammunition belts, whacking each new cartridge into place with a rubber mallet.
Looking back at the village, it’s hard to understand how any buildings could have survived such a devastating strike.
To our left at the south end of the village, a group of Kurdish fighters advance along a track. Two peshmerga jog ahead of the others. I look away to take a picture of the crew working on the KPV when there is another explosion, much quieter than the air strikes.
The peshmerga crew of a pickup truck, armed with a KPV heavy machine gun, look toward a puff of smoke marking the explosion of an improvised explosive device. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
I look back and see a rising puff of smoke and dust where the soldiers were running. Then another explosion. Both improvised explosive devices. IEDs.
Five men died in both blasts, and several more were injured. The mood on the hill is somber as news of the casualties crackles over radios and the number of dead rises. An armored MRAP, previously located behind us, speeds off to help. Above our heads, a drone whines somewhere out of view.
In a Western army, one would expect – in an area like this – to have a soldier with a mine detector searching ahead of the patrol. But without money, training and equipment being in huge supply in Kurdistan, the peshmerga do yet not have this capability.
A peshmerga lieutenant colonel stands on a hill as Kurdish forces wait to advance on a village where several Islamic State positions have recently been hit by a coalition air strike. Matt Cett-Roberts photo
Since the war began in summer 2014, Kurdish officials say that 90 percent of peshmerga casualties, some 1,300 dead and 3,000 injured, have been through improvised explosive devices.
We stop on a path next to the hill for a water break. Hadji and his group come over. They look worn, but happy. Fazer tells us that they’re heading to a Humvee in the field directly in front of the village where some peshmerga are setting crops on fire — a tactic for clearing IEDs.
We tell him we’re heading back to the hill.
Hadji Fazer and his group walk towards a village where several Islamic State positions have recently been hit by a coalition airstrike. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
A group of peshmerga move along a road that leads to the northern edge of the village. Most hang back as several go forward to clear houses. As they move up they look for and point out potential IEDs.
Firing starts again and a Humvee moves up to support. Fazer later tells us that a group of Islamic State fighters were shooting from a patch of trees a couple of hundred meters beyond the village.
On the road, the peshmerga suspect they have found a bomb buried in a muddy patch. The defending militants also constructed a berm on one side of the road, channelling vehicles and the attacking soldiers along a vulnerable path. A peshmerga engineer arrives briefly to appraise the situation, warning others to keep away until he checks it out.
The gunner of a DShK heavy machine gun watches over colleagues who are advancing into a village where several Islamic State positions have recently been hit by a coalition airstrike. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Several peshmerga begin to enter the village. Moments later, there is a large explosion about 200 meters away. Shrapnel flies over our heads with a whizzing sound.
Someone triggered an IED in a small hut. A group of three peshmerga lie wounded in the rubble.
A cloud of dust obscures the site of an improvised explosive device detonation. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Some fighters shout to others to provide assistance, and some in the village run to the site of the explosion. But because of the IEDs in the area, caution is important.
The Western coalition is training Kurdish fighters in IED awareness and dealing with battlefield casualties, but with 160,000 peshmerga, and a limited amount of coalition trainers, most have not yet received training.
A senior peshmerga fighter inspects the road for further IEDs before any of the injured fighters are removed.
Zana is with us on the road, standing next to the vehicles. He tries to call Fazer to make sure that no one in the volunteer group were injured, but cell reception is poor and he can’t reach him. There are a tense few minutes before Hadji and two of the group appear back on the road, walking back to where we are. The injured are all regular peshmerga.
Zana (R) and another peshmerga fighter shout to colleagues to alert them to the position of the casualties injured by the blast of an Islamic State improvised explosive device. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
A stretcher eventually makes its way to the casualties. The Humvee sits close by in case it is needed. Six men load up one of the casualties onto the stretcher and hurry back to a waiting pickup truck. Because of the IEDs in the area, a lot of time has elapsed, and the casualty — one of the men who lost his legs — is pale and dusty when he passes by.
The remains of his legs are bound by makeshift bandages, his clothes in tatters. The soldier moves slightly on the stretcher before his comrades load him into the back of the truck, which then speeds off.
A blood-soaked stretcher, used to carry the casualties injured by an improvised explosive device, lies on dusty ground outside a small village on the outskirts of the town of Mansuriya near Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Most of the peshmerga return from the village. One soldier folds up a black Islamic State flag, a keepsake he found in the village before the explosion.
An MRAP arrives to clear the way. The peshmerga are keen to evacuate their remaining comrades, but the engineers insist that the road must be cleared first. They lay detonators next to two devices and proceed to blow them up.
A large bomb, one of many dropped by a coalition jet during the offensive, explodes on Islamic State positions in the town of Mansuriya, west of Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Fifteen minutes later, the last two peshmerga leave the village – one on a stretcher, the other in a sheet. Both men died of their injuries before they could be taken out of the rubble.
As the ambulance leaves, one fighter hugs another as tears stream down his face. Word comes through on the radio that the man evacuated in the pickup truck earlier also died. According to Lt. Gen. Jabar Yawar, a ministry of peshmerga spokesman, there were 22 deaths on the offensive – 21 from IEDs and one from gunfire.
Peshmerga engineers clear a road of improvised explosive devices so colleagues can advance towards the town of Mansuriya. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Silence falls around the unit as they deal with their losses, and probably exhaustion.
Hadji and his group return and eat a lunch of rice and chicken with the other peshmerga. The food is brought up in huge pots on the back of a truck, and my translator jokes that Islamic State must also be eating and taking a rest. The battlefield is oddly silent.
All too quickly, lunch is over, the sounds of battle come back into focus as peshmerga, jets and militants continue to fight. Most of the fighters from the unit sit by the side of the road trying to relax in the shade of their vehicles. There’s nothing they can do until the EOD team have cleared the way.
Peshmerga watch and wait as engineers carry out the controlled detonation of an improvised explosive device. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The engineers start to blast away at the devices they find, detonating 10 devices which send huge plumes of dust into the air. On only two occasions can we hear just the detonator popping – the rest of the time the EOD team find their mark.
It’s hard going, and the peshmerga platoon will be sitting here for some time. A peshmerga who had been into the edge of the village said that they found 20 bombs in the village in the short time they were there – the whole place is one giant trap.
Islamic State graffiti is seen on a village recently abandoned by militants in the face of a peshmerga offensive. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Mansuriya itself continues taking a pounding from the air as other peshmerga move toward it. One of the unit’s armored Humvees is beyond the village, occasionally firing at targets way out of sight from where we are. We decide that now is the time to start moving back to Kirkuk.
As we walk past peshmerga clustering in the shade of their vehicles waiting for the engineers to finish their work, we catch a glimpse of Hadji Fazer and some of his men walking up the road and around the corner, moving forward to join the fight.