by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
In the first 24 hours of the Kurds’ latest offensive there were 16 coalition air strikes. Peshmerga fighters attacked from positions near Mosul Dam, taking Islamic State by surprise and cutting their supply lines. Now the Kurds are close to the militants’ stronghold in the city of Mosul.
But why are the Peshmerga pushing now? The Iraqi Army is nowhere near ready to attack the city. U.S. military officials have already said that the Iraqi Army won’t be ready to take Mosul until at least spring.
Iraqi troops need more training and equipment—and they have a lot of ground to regain from which to launch an offensive into the city.
What’s more is that the Kurdish Regional Government has said it has little interest in Mosul.
I and a fellow journalist—a French reporter—went to the front line to investigate.
We visited Nawaran in the area near Shekhan. It’s a front-line position dug into a hillside. The day before our visit on Jan. 26, there was heavy fighting as militants attacked the Kurdish lines.
Although Islamic State has suffered major setbacks to the west of the Mosul Dam, the Shekhan counter-offensive scored some victories in Makhmur and Gwer. Two Peshmerga fighters died during the clashes—one of them a general named Harbo Ahmed.
The Kurds have some heavy weapons in the area—artillery, a tank or two and some armored personnel carriers.
But overall, the hillside looks reminiscent of a World War I trench scene.
I talked to a Kurdish captain who said they killed 14 Islamic State fighters the day before. He carried an American M-4 rifle. He held it in a professional manner—finger on the trigger guard when he’s not in combat.
He told me they don’t care about tanks, just killing militants. I later learn the captain is the son of the Kurds’ commander—Gen. Serbest.
When we meet the general, he was surrounded by bodyguards. Though most sported very clean, new-looking rifles, Serbest said he has not received any weapons from the coalition.
We heard a mortar fire three times during the interview. Both the impact and detonation were withing hearing distance.
Serbest described the previous day’s battle. “We had to defend ourselves with old weapons—you can see these weapons,” he told us.
The Islamic State fighters had five Humvees and a tank. According to the general, they killed 50 enemy fighters, and retrieved 14 of the bodies. The Kurds also knocked out their vehicles and destroyed the tank. He said three of the dead were emirs—Islamic State officials in charge of the area.
“We could see that they were emirs because we took their ID papers,” he explained.
Serbest and his troops are incredibly close to Mosul, the heart of Islamic State’s territory in Iraq.
“Everybody in the coalition countries and Iraq knows that Mosul is the capital of terror,” the general said. “And my front is the closest to this capital of terror.”
But he said he doesn’t foresee a push into Iraq’s second largest city.
“The Mosul liberation is not the job of Kurds,” he said. “That being said, ISIS thinks the Kurds are more dangerous than the central government—who are nowhere to be found.”
So why the push toward Mosul?
“We have to protect our Kurdish governate and stop ISIS from approaching,” he answered. “On top of that we have two million refugees to protect against a force that attacks the whole of Iraq.”
The Kurdish fighting position consists of several bunkers with viewpoints looking out toward Islamic State positions. A Kurdish-operated Soviet-made T-54/55 tank was in a hull-down position at the top of the hill.
We could hear at least one coalition forces jet for about 20 minutes during our visit. But the aircraft was flying at very high altitude and out of sight.
We inspected the fire-damaged tank the Kurds destroyed the previous day. The Peshmerga told us they dragged it to the camp. They posed with the trophy and took pictures, while one picked through the derelict vehicle—salvaging ammunition and scrap from the wreckage.
On closer inspection it appears to be a modified BREM-1 recovery vehicle with a large armored cupola mounted on top. The paint job suggests the Iraqi army made the modification before the militants captured it.
A shield served to protect the gunner at the front of the fighting compartment. The previous owners added mounts for additional weapons on the top of the armor.
Whoever modified the tank also added branches and twigs in square brackets to the vehicle’s front and sides. This might have been an attempt to mount a roof. The fighting platform was open at the rear to provide access to the deck.
A dent on the floor of the fighting platform indicates something hit it from above. The Peshmerga wouldn’t have seen this part of the vehicle—even if it was below them on the plains. The damage could indicate an impact from a falling mortar round.
The driver’s hatch was at the front of the fighting platform. It opened through the floor, directly in front of the heavy machine gun mount. The driver’s compartment was not damaged by the fire, and contained no parts or sign of the driver.
Ammunition littered the deck of the fighting platform. Some live, some spent.
There was an assortment of cooked off 12.7-millimeter rounds for the DShK heavy machine gun, NATO 5.56-millimeter rounds—including some partially-melted magazines—and lots of Soviet 7.62-millimeter rounds, the kind used for AK-47s.
The Peshmerga fighters we spoke to suggested that a rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle. Others didn’t know how it was knocked out. The vehicle showed no signs of anti-tank weapon damage. There were several 7.62 rounds stuck in the rubber side skirts.
Next we met Kak Ali, head of the local Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Shekhan. He too spoke of yesterday’s battle.
“Yesterday the Peshmerga fought very bravely,” he said. “Everyone in the area helped and went to fight.”
Ali said he was one of the local volunteers who fought in the previous day’s battle. He told us he killed a young, wounded Islamic State fighter because he thought he might have a weapon.
“The fighter just carried on walking towards us as I and another [Kurd] fired at him, as if he was drunk,” he recalled.
Ali noted French aircraft carried out a lot of the air strikes, but there were not enough. The official said they want more support from the coalition.
“We have received some weapons in this area, but we need more,” he said. “We have less of them in this area.”
During the battle, the Peshmerga fought several foreign fighters. The Islamist army that pressed into Kurdish lands during these last few months is an international one. But to Ali, there’s a silver lining to having so many jihadists gathered in one place.
“It is good that they come,” he said. “So we can kill them here instead of people fighting them in their own countries.”
The Shekhan area is a historically diverse region, but the war has strained tribal, ethnic and sectarian divisions in the community.
“There is a split between the [Arab] tribes, the Yazidi and the Kurds,” Ali said. “It will take a long time for this to heal. We need time between people.”
He said these divisions complicated the fight. Some Arab tribes willingly joined the militants. But at the same time, they know that when Islamic State enters other Arab villages, they demand young men join them—sometimes against their families will.
As a result, the Peshmerga must treat the Arabs in liberated territories with caution, he said.
“They are allowed to buy food in the towns, but must be given permission to enter,” he explained. “We also limit the amount of food they can buy at once—we know that they may send supplies to ISIS if they have large amounts of food.”
It’s complicated because the Arabs in this area have been here well before Saddam Hussein’s Arabization programs displaced many Kurds. These Arabs have live alongside Kurds for generations. “We know many of them,” Ali said.
“We respect Arabs, but this is not a normal situation,” he explained. “Some of the ISIS fighters we killed yesterday were people we knew.”
Still, he said supporting Sunni groups is critical to defeating the militants. “We must help the Sunni groups that are not part of ISIS to get rid of the Islamic State,” he said.
Without them, it will be incredibly difficult to liberate territories like Mosul, where recent history has given locals little reason to trust the Iraqi troops that are supposed to liberate them.
“The Iraqi army was not an army—it was loyal to Maliki, not the country,” Ali explained. He said that’s why Islamic State so easily took Mosul. “The people there suffered under Maliki, they would welcome anyone that would come to help them.”
But he doesn’t believe this Kurdish push is part of an effort to dislodge the militants from their stronghold in the city. It’s about self interest.
“This is not about [taking] Mosul. This is about our areas of the front line.” he said. “We had to cut ISIS supply lines from Syria.”
Later, we visited Mosul Dam, where we spoke to a Peshmerga intelligence officer with the Kurdish Zeravani.
“Since the last offensive there have been some attacks, but they were sporadic,” he told us. “Sometimes they shell our position and the road. The situation is tense since ISIS can attack and come to our positions at any moment.”
The officer complained about weapon and ammunition shortages, but admitted that German-supplied MILAN anti-tank missiles have been a big help in their latest campaign.
“Without the coalition support it would have been impossible to carry out the offensive” he said.
He told us that pushing into mixed and Arab communities adds extra challenges, but ultimately does little to change their mission.
“As a Peshmerga—as fighters—we are not interested in the religion or ethnicity of the people living in the areas in our control,” he said. He insisted that they can easily tell the difference between a terrorist and a regular person.
“There are 600 civil servants who are mostly Sunni Arabs working on the dam and they are under our protection,” the officer said. “We protect them unless we have info that some work for ISIS. The same goes for the people south of the dam.”
He mentioned that many Arabs fled when the Kurds came, because Islamic State propaganda told them they would be killed. But the officer said many Arabs are now returning as they hear stories from friends and neighbors that the stories were greatly exaggerated.
“[With] the last offensive we have been weakening a strategic area of ISIS near Mosul,” the officer explained. “If they want to go to from Mosul to Tal Afar, the way is now three times longer.”
We asked if he thinks the Kurds will take part in the assault on Mosul.
Though the officer expressed little excitement at the prospect, he said the Peshmerga may end up taking part in the battle for Iraq’s second largest city.
“We do not want to attack Mosul on our own. But [there are] political deals that we do not control. We are just Peshmerga and we have to go there, we have to go with the Iraqi army,” he said. “We can work with the Iraqi army, but they have to do something.”
Assuming the national army can effectively mount an attack, the officer was concerned about Baghdad’s forces returning to Mosul. They don’t exactly a have stellar reputation. And the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias marching with Iraqi troops as they push north is also worrisome.
“The Iraqi army was just Maliki’s army, and people did not trust the Iraqi army. I hope things will be fine, but there may be many problems,” he said ominously. “And it would not be good if Shia militia took part as they would evict everyone.”
The officer said he heard rumors of Arab Sunni fighters training to fight against militants in Mosul. These troops could help motivate the local populace to turn against Islamic State.
But so far, he said the Arabs he’s encountered have largely been “passive.”
Not hostile — but not especially helpful, either.