BASHIQA, IRAQ – The campaign to capture Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul from the Islamic State is, at this stage, less a battle than a series of simultaneous skirmishes by relatively small units, at a distance from the city itself. And the force attempting to recapture the city, once the center of oil production in Iraq, is not a unified army but two separate formations – the mainly Shi'ite Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga – divided by deep rivalry, if not enmity.
The two forces are watching each other closely, as they make slow – and separate – progress toward Mosul itself. The campaign is in its second week and so far they are still miles away from their target, on independent front lines.
The sophistication of the American Apache helicopter gunships hovering high over the frontlines – sighting targets kilometers away with advanced sensors and firing Hellfire guided missiles – belies the antiquated nature of the Peshmerga’s armaments. The Iraqi army may be armed by the United States, but the Kurds are reliant on Soviet-era weapons and hand-me-downs.
In addition to their old Kalashnikov rifles, the main firepower of the Kurds is provided by ancient Dushka machine guns mounted on Japanese pickups, small cannons dragged into position by civilian trucks and one Grad missile launcher. New American-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles and Barret heavy sniper rifles are among the few weapons to have trickled down from the Iraqi Army.
“Baghdad get tanks and F-16s, but they only give us light arms,” complained one of the Peshmerga officers. The U.S. has also supplied M-16 assault rifles, but most of the Peshmerga prefer their trusty old Kalashnikovs.
The main American contribution to the Kurdish effort are hand-me-down, clapped-out Hummers, which drive in armored convoys alongside old Russian APCs and trucks and SUVs covered in home-made armor plates, some of which were captured from ISIS in recent days and pressed in to Peshmerga service.
The slow progress of the attacking forces likely has more to do with disagreements between them on how to proceed than concern for casualties, civilian or otherwise. Officially, the Iraqi Army is supposed to enter Mosul itself, once the surrounding towns and villages have been cleared of ISIS.
But concern about its fighting spirit still lingers, over two years since it was humiliatingly routed in the ISIS capture of the city. There is also concern over what may happen when the mainly Shi'ite Iraqi army troops enter Mosul, which is still home to an estimated one million Sunnis or more.
The Peshmerga is not supposed to take part in the fighting within Mosul, though many Kurdish officers believe no one else in Iraq can be entrusted with the mission – certainly not the Iraqi Army. Some officers have been talking openly about what the Iraqi government in Baghdad would have to offer the Kurds if they are obliged to step in to save the situation.
“They should allow us to develop the oilfields and sell to Turkey,” said one. “And allow the people of the Mosul area to join the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) if they choose.”
Control over oil revenue from fields in the Kurdish region is the major source of disagreement between Baghdad and the KRG. It may not be directly connected to the Mosul campaign and the war against ISIS, but coordination on the front lines would probably be better had there been better relations between the Kurds and the central government.
Battling for the road
One of the fiercest battles this week was for the town of Bashiqa. ISIS has melted away from many of the villages around Mosul when the attacking force approached, but Bashiqa which controls the main road into the city as well as the oil pipeline, is a key asset and one of the main objectives of the first stage of the Mosul campaign.
Some 100,000 people lived in Bashiqa before it was captured by ISIS in August 2014. Most of them were Yazidis and Christians who fled and are now refugees. The Peshmerga estimate that at least 100 ISIS fighters are still in the town and preparing to use car-bombs and carry out suicide attacks against the advancing fighters.
The Peshmerga assemble on a barren plain three kilometers from the outskirts of Bashiqa in the early hours of Sunday morning. Nearby is an abandoned village, in which some of the fighters have grabbed a few hours of sleep.
Shortly after dawn, a haphazard armored column of APCs and SUVs begins moving through a bulldozed opening in a tall obstacle of earth. There isn’t room for all the men on the vehicles, so many of them advance on foot.
The Peshmerga wear a bewildering array of uniforms, in various camouflage patterns, with their unit insignia patches fixed on with velcro. Some have Kurdish flags wrapped around their necks; many, particularly the older fighters, are wearing traditional wide Kurdish trousers, in earth colors, beneath their combat webbing.
As they advance, American aircraft drop bombs on selected targets in their path and Peshmerga cannons and a Grad rocket launcher fire intermittent barrages. Alongside the column, large mechanical diggers dig trenches and fortified positions every few hundred meters for the machine-gun carrying SUVs that protect the force’s flank from surprise attacks.
A kilometer from the town, one of the machine gun crews spots two pickups racing across the open fields, trying to evade the column’s vanguard. The machine gun opens fire after the vehicles have been identified as suicide-bombers, disabling the pickups and killing the men inside.
High above the column, an American intelligence-gathering plane can be seen in the hazy sky. But sometimes it takes much less sophisticated devices to eavesdrop on ISIS. A Peshmerga officer uses his handheld old Motorola radio to listen to ISIS fighters nearby, communicating with their headquarters. They say they are “young shahids”, ready to martyr themselves against the advancing Kurdish troops.
As the column draws close to the outlying buildings of the town, the fighters come under fire from a large agricultural warehouse overlooking their positions. Dozens of men fling themselves into a ditch and begin returning fire, but the ISIS snipers are out of range of their Kalashnikovs.
Dushka machineguns are brought up, but it is still near-impossible to locate targets sheltering in the large building. Frustrated, one of the men unlocks a nearby pickup and pulls out a foil-wrapped tube. After minutes of fumbling with the seals, a new TOW anti-tank missile is unveiled.
Before the men can fire it, an officer shouts at them not to waste the valuable weapon on a target they can barely identify. Instead, they retrieve a rusty old 60mm mortar from the pickup, but it fails to find its mark after half-a-dozen ranging shots. The only weapon which seems to suppress the ISIS snipers is another sniper rifle, a new American Barret anti-materiel 0.5” rifle, fired by a Peshmerga fighter recently trained by American military advisors.
As soon as the firing from the warehouse ends, more firing opens up from another nearby building. The column’s progress is halted for over two hours until an American air-strike takes out the ISIS position.
By this stage, there are already four Peshmerga casualties and no one is moving forward very quickly. The Kurdish fighters settle down behind mounds of earth to cook the midday meal. A few officers remain at the frontline, making do with biscuits and canned tuna.
Colonel Hemnhassan Salih, deputy commander of the Peshmerga Kirkuk Brigade, says his men are exhausted. “Twenty-four hours ago we were still mopping up ISIS terrorists who attacked our town. Now we’re here fighting for Bashiqa,” he says.
The colonel can’t explain why the advance is so slow. As far as he is concerned, there’s no reason to exercise much care in using firepower. “There are no civilians left in Bashiqa,” he insists. “Anyone still in the town is a terrorist.”
Despite the claims that the battle is proceeding as planned and that all targets have been achieved, some even ahead of schedule, the reality is that the forces are proceeding very slowly. The battle for Bashiqa is already in its third day, with the Peshmerga having cleared only a small part of the town. This battle, one of many before the actual battle of Mosul, is far from over.