A ‘decisive battle’: Determination energizes Iraqi forces in fight to retake Mosul from Islamic State
Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske reports from Tel Aswad, Iraq, where Iraqi special forces and Kurdish peshmerga gather at an operating base about 20 miles from Mosul as the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State begins.
Clean your guns, the burly Iraqi commander told nearly 200 specially trained counter-terrorism troops arrayed in front of a dozen armored black Humvees: In an hour and a half, we leave for Mosul.
The troops listening closely to Lt. Col. Ali Hussein were among 35,000 Iraqi security forces leading a government offensive that began Monday to oust Islamic State from the city of Mosul, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.
“We depend on each other to move ahead. This is our decisive battle,” Hussein said, warning of booby traps, suicide bombers and mines.
A firefighter works to extinguish an oil well set ablaze by fleeing Islamic State fighters in Qayyarah, Iraq, on Nov. 9.(Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
A peshmerga fighter peers through curtains as he and other Kurdish soldiers move into a new house in Bashiqa, Iraq, on Nov. 9.(Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)
A peshmerga fighter looks for militants as he and his team move between buildings in Bashiqa.(Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces react as they watch Donald Trump give a speech after winning the U.S. presidential election. They were taking a rest in the village of Arbid on the southern outskirts of Mosul on Nov. 9 during the operation to retake Mosul from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi police try to pull a body from a mass grave they discovered in the Hamam Alil area on Nov. 7 after they recaptured the area from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish peshmerga soldiers fire artillery at Islamic State positions in Bashiqa, Iraq, on Nov. 7.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Iraqi forces patrol the Gogjali district of Mosul a day after it was liberated from Islamic State.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Families flee Gogjali after the area was liberated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A girl waves a white flag as she and her family leave Gogjali.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi special forces continue to clear homes in Gogjali on Nov. 2, 2016, after the area was liberated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi special forces Lt. Col Ali Hussein Fadil and his men continue to clear the Gogjali district.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi troops patrol Gogjali.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi army soldiers warm themselves near the Qayyarah air base, south of Mosul, on Tuesday.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Displaced people who fled from Islamic State-held territory sit outside a mosque guarded by Iraqi soldiers in Shuwayrah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Members of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service drive near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, tightening the noose as the offensive to retake the Islamic State group stronghold entered its third week on Sunday.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service take shelter after a mortar shell hit nearby near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, as they advance towards Iraq’s last remaining Islamic State stronghold on Monday.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Section grimaces in pain as he receives medical treatment after clashes on Monday with Islamic State militants near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edge of Mosul.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
A militia fighter prepares to go into battle with his phone and bullets.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Popular mobilization units are helping to clear villages southwest of Mosul, Iraq. On Sunday, they launched mortar rounds a little more than a mile from Islamic State fighters who continued to resist their advance on the city.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militiamen chant before going into battle alongside Iraqi army forces as they fight against Islamic State near Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militiamen near the village of Zarqa stand by as mortars are launched at Islamic State fighters near Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The popular mobilization units received the Iraqi government’s blessing to join the battle that could break Islamic State’s grip in the country.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militias known as popular mobilization units fighting near Mosul are made up mostly of Shiite Muslims.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In the village of Faziliya, recently liberated from Islamic State, Abdul Gafur, 38, embraces his brother Mohammad Abdul Gafur, 40. The two had not seen each other since Islamic State forces took control of the village more than two years ealier.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Business is brisk at the barbershops in Faziliya after Kurdish forces retook control from Islamic State militants. A bodyguard stands by.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Peshmerga, or Kurdish fighters, rest after a recent battle.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a bomb factory can be seen in the village of Faziliya, recently liberated from Islamic State control.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A member of the Iraqi armed forces kisses a local boy after Iraqi forces entered the town of Shura, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi troops approaching Mosul from the south advanced into Shura on Saturday after a wave of U.S.-led airstrikes and artillery shelling against Islamic State positions inside the town.(Marko Drobnjakovic / AP)
Iraqi families, who already had been displaced by the ongoing operation by Iraqi forces against jihadists of the Islamic State group, flee Mosul. Iraqi paramilitary forces launched an operation to cut the Islamic State group’s supply lines between its Mosul bastion and neighboring Syria.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
Walid Abdel Nabih, 28, from Nasiriya and a father of four, moves through passageways created by Islamic State to prevent detection by drones. On the eastern front in the fight for Mosul, an Iraqi special forces unit waits for next phase of the fight to clear Islamic State operatives from Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi special forces member rides in the turret of a humvee with a Shiite religious banner flying behind him as he patrols Bartella, Iraq.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
As many Iraqis are returning home, others are fleeing the fighting in villages surrounding Mosul. At Camp JJadh, 3,000 people arrived in the past week, but many more are expected as the battle for Mosul continues. New arrivals line up for food, provide by the World Food Program.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Children play in a dismantled car in the village of Hurriya, where fighting between Islamic State and Iraqi forces has caused many families to leave over the past months. The risk of unexploded weapons is still a concern for many in the area.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Soldiers drive through the town of Qayyarah, heavily damaged in the fighting in August and again this past week as Islamic State was driven out of town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Sienna Moqtar and her daughter decorate her brother’s grave with rocks. He died last week in the final days of Islamic State in Qayyarah. The bodies of two infant nephews are buried at the right.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Ibrahim Atea Ahmed, left and Daham Ahmed survived the Islamic State attack, but their town was left in bad shape. Oil fires continue to burn, set by militants as a cover from air attacks.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Residents wait for food and water to be handed out, but very little was distributed. The water is not fit to drink in the town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi soldiers head for the front line.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi fighter takes a position on top of a vehicle as smoke rises on the outskirts of the Qayyarah area, 35 miles south of Mosul, during an operation against Islamic State.(BULENT KILIC / AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from an area near the Iraqi town of Nawaran, northeast of Mosul, as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters march down a dirt road during the ongoing operation to retake the city from Islamic State.(SAFIN HAMED / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Iraq.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Iraq.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
The commander of Iraq Special Forces Lt. Gen Abdul Ghani al-Asadi during an interview on the Bartila front line, after the city was liberated from Islamic State militants.(AHMED JALIL / EPA)
Iraqi Special Forces take up position in Bartila front line, after the city was liberated from Islamic State militants.(AHMED JALIL / EPA)
Iraqi soldiers ride in a truck advancing through the desert on the banks of the Tigris River toward the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire rockets from a mobile launcher near the town of Bashiqa, about 25 kilometers northeast of Mosul, on Oct. 20, 2016.(Safid Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces advances with his unit toward the city of Mosul, on Oct. 20, 2016.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
A villager walks on a bare street as smoke from oil fires nearby turn the sky black in the Qayyarah area, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 19, 2016.(Yasin Akgul / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi soldiers look on as smoke rises from the Qayyarah area south of Mosul on Oct. 19, 2016, as Iraqi forces take part in an operation against Islamic State to retake Mosul.(YASIN AKGUL / AFP/Getty Images)
A man takes a selfie in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area south of Mosul on Oct. 19, 2016, during an operation by Iraqi forces against Islamic State to retake Mosul.(YASIN AKGUL / AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi sniper wearing his camouflage in the village of Bajwaniyah village, about 30 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 18, 2016.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from an explosion as Iraqi forces retake the village of Bajwaniyah from Islamic State on their way to Mosul.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
People abandon their homes during clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants fleeing Mosul on Oct. 18, 2016.(Associated Press)
Iraqi soldiers inspect a tunnel in a building in the recaptured village of Shaquoli, about 35 kilometers east of Mosul, on Oct. 18, 2016.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands amid the rubble of a destroyed building on Oct. 18, 2016, in the village of Shaqouli, east of Mosul, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State group.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish security forces take cover in the fight to capture Khazer, about 30 kilometers east of Mosul, on Oct. 17, 2016.(Associated Press)
A man carries a baby at a refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakeh province for Iraqi families who fled fighting in the Mosul area on Oct. 17, 2016.(Delil Souleiman / AFP/Getty Images)
Lt. Col. Ali Hussein, right, addresses Iraqi security forces leading a government offensive that began Monday to oust Islamic State from the city of Mosul, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi police officer inspects his weapon at the Qayyarah military base, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 16, 2016, amid preparations for the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State.(Ahmad Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces head north toward Mosul on Monday, part of the operation to retake the city from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire a mortar shell from Mount Zardak.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
After dismissing his troops, Hussein said that although the army is leading the battle for Mosul, it’s working with Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga as well as Sunni and Shiite militias to capture and secure surrounding areas. The force is supported by a military coalition that includes the United States.
Mosul, which is believed to have about 1 million residents, was seized by Islamic State in 2014.
The battle to retake the city is expected to be difficult, involving urban warfare among a mix of factions and forces in a place still full of civilians. Iraqi forces, many of them Shiite, are expected to need some level of support by residents of the largely Sunni city for the offensive to be successful.
Troops massing at bases around Mosul in recent weeks began by encircling the city Monday in an attempt to prevent Islamic State fighters from fleeing. The counter-terrorism forces, which also led offensives in Fallujah and Ramadi, are expected to join other troops in storming the city.
About 4,000 peshmerga troops fought to secure nine villages surrounding Mosul on Monday, the first stage of the battle. The area had been home to Christians and other minorities persecuted by Islamic State, and many civilians had already fled, peshmerga commanders said.
The fighting began hours after Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced on state television about 2 a.m. that the liberation of Mosul had begun.
“The Iraqi flag will be raised in the middle of Mosul, and in each village and corner very soon,” Abadi said, dressed in a military uniform and surrounded by officers.
By noon, peshmerga forces had cleared most of the villages, suffering fewer than 10 casualties, peshmerga Brig. Gen. Salar Jabar said as he stood with dozens of troops near the front lines about 20 miles east of Mosul.
Black smoke billowed on the horizon, where he said Islamic State militants had set fire to a gypsum plant to obscure the area from airstrikes. Soon after, several booms sounded. Some were airstrikes, he said, but they were also still seeing Islamic State suicide bombers, some as young as 13, and snipers.
“We are trying to liberate as much as we can,” he said, but, he added, “They’re resisting.”
Though many Islamic State fighters have fled with their families to Syria, some villages still had 10 to 20, and they leave mines and booby traps behind, he said. At least three peshmerga, including a commander, were killed Monday by mines, fellow fighters said.
In a statement released online, Islamic State said it launched a series of suicide car bomb attacks against Iraqi forces.
Coalition warplanes carried out four airstrikes Sunday in and around Mosul against the militants’ tactical units, weapons caches and supply routes, including a bridge and tunnel entrances, the Pentagon said. The U.S.-led coalition has launched more than 70 airstrikes in the Mosul area this month.
Most of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq “are not anywhere close to the front line,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters.
He said the U.S. is assisting the Iraqis with logistics support by sending supplies from remote bases, directing airstrikes from command hubs, or training Iraqi forces for other operations.
U.S. special forces are advising Iraqi and Kurdish commanders at makeshift headquarters around Mosul, however, and the facilities will move forward as the Iraqis gain ground on the battlefield.
“To be sure, Americans are in harm’s way as part of this fight,” Cook said.
Turkey, meanwhile, has stationed about 3,000 troops at a base near Mosul, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted they participate in the liberation to prevent “Sunni-Shiite strife” in the city.
Officials and analysts said ahead of the offensive that sectarian tensions could flare once forces converge on Mosul.
Maj. Sarhard Raffat, standing near the front lines, said his Kurdish troops had been instructed by commanders not to enter Mosul, but to hold the perimeter and await Iraqi forces. That’s what they intended to do, he said, as more booms sounded in nearby villages.
Peshmerga Division Commander Rashid Abdullah Hader stood with a fellow group of fighters perched on the back of a pickup truck with a machine gun mounted in the bed. They faced a dusty field of golden grass, scanning the plain where smoke still billowed below the surrounding mountains.
“I’m optimistic that all the people will get back to their families and their land and it will be a victory not just for Kurdistan, but for the Iraqi people,” Hader said.
Kurdish forces have been flying their own flags and Hussein’s forces are using Shiite sectarian flags, though officials say they are hopeful that will not cause problems.
“We had those flags on in the battle for Qayyarah [a Sunni area about 40 miles south of Mosul] and people didn’t have any issue with it,” Hussein said. “I’m sure the people of Mosul will understand. If they are not happy, we can take the flags down.”
He stressed that “there were special conditions” for having sectarian militias participate in the fight. For instance, “they have to disappear and the Iraqi army has to take control” when the city is seized.
Some of the peshmerga and Iraqi soldiers have relatives and friends trapped in Mosul and other Islamic State territory.
Humanitarian groups have said the offensive will displace tens of thousands of residents, 200,000 in the first two weeks alone.
“With no clear safe routes out of Mosul, thousands are now in danger of getting caught up in the crossfire,” said Aleksandar Milutinovic, director of the International Rescue Committee’s operations in Iraq. “Civilians who attempt to escape the city will have little choice but to take their lives into their own hands and pray that they are able to avoid snipers, landmines, booby traps and other explosives.”
Zirwa Abdal Rahim, a peshmerga fighter, 28, said Monday that he talked to a friend in Mosul, a car salesman, just before the offensive started. He said Islamic State leaders had been fleeing with their families west over the border to Raqqah, Syria, the de facto capital of Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate.
“They are waiting for the security forces to tell them what to do,” he said of the man’s family, who had seen leaflets dropped by the coalition instructing them to shelter in place. “They know they have to stay in their houses. We have information that there are counter-terrorism groups in Mosul waiting for forces to get close so they can fight Islamic State.”
It was in Mosul, at the city’s Great Mosque, that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, declared their caliphate, including portions of Iraq and Syria.
Though some residents alienated from the Iraqi federal government welcomed them, they soon soured on the harsh regime, which meted out severe punishment for violating moral codes, with public executions and beheadings.
Residents are not allowed to have cellphones, although many hide them. They also have televisions and know the offensive is underway.
Thousands of the fighters stayed and appear ready to use civilians as human shields, Abdal Rahim’s friend told him. They zoom around town on motorbikes, he said, forcing families to pay $200 each to fund their fight, digging ditches to halt troops’ progress and “every time they hear warplanes, they are hiding among civilians.”
Peshmerga blamed Islamic State for blowing up Mosul’s Freedom Bridge over the Tigris on Monday, which connects the two sides of the city. The extremist fighters’ media claimed the bridge was destroyed by a coalition airstrike.
Among black-clad soldiers in counter-terrorism caps preparing to roll out late Monday were young men from various corners of the country, including Sunnis, Shiites and other sects.
Mahmoud Essa Mohammed, 26, a Sunni, said he’s from a village outside Mosul still controlled by Islamic State where residents have been providing the army with information to help the offensive.
“It will be a big victory for all Iraqis,” said Mohammed, who said he didn’t mind the sectarian Shiite flags flying from the Humvees.
Harth Falh, 22, came from largely Sunni Anbar province to the southwest, where the army managed to score a major victory recently in wresting Fallujah from Islamic State control. His family, like many across Iraq, is hoping for a decisive, symbolic victory that signals a way forward after years of battling Islamic extremists.
“My uncle said don’t come home unless you raise the Iraqi flag in Mosul,” Falh said, as the Humvees began to roll at sunset.
Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.
3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with statements from the Pentagon and Islamic State.
This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.
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