An Iraqi band of brothers: They watch ‘American Sniper’ and play ‘Call of Duty’ – and they’re out to recapture Mosul
An Iraqi special forces soldier rides in a Humvee with a Shiite religious banner flying behind while moving through recently captured territory on the eastern front in the fight for Mosul on Oct. 28, 2016.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Lt. Col. Ali Hussein Fadil, center, commands an Iraqi special forces unit in the fight to retake the city of Mosul, including 28-year-old Waleed Abdel Nabi, left.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi government Humvee window cracked by Islamic State fire on the eastern front in fight for Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Waleed Abdel Nabi, 28, clears what appear to be abandoned homes in the advance toward Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Islamic State tunnel entrance found in Bartella by Iraqi special forces.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Waleed Abdel Nabi, a father of four, moves through the town of Bartella by Humvee.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A barricaded door where Islamic State fighters had made a nest.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Waleed Abdel Nabi, right, and a fellow Iraqi special force fighter in the town of Bartella.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a burned car.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi forces patrol in a Humvee east of Mosul as they wait for the next phase of the battle to retake the city from Islamic State.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Just before sunset on the first day of the Mosul offensive, Lt. Col. Ali Hussein Fadil called his soldiers to attention in a field about 30 miles east of the city where they had bivouacked.
After five months of training, and now three days of waiting, the 166-strong Najaf battalion of the Iraqi Special Forces known as Golden Division was itching to deploy. You have, he told them, exactly an hour and a half.
“Get ready and we will move toward Mosul,” Hussein said, his voice stern.
The troops paid close attention to their cleanshaven commander’s instructions, delivered in clipped Arabic: Don’t enter houses alone. Take your bazookas and RPGs. Target suicide bombers’ cars quickly before they reach us. Safety first. Commanders, be responsible for your soldiers. Beware of booby-traps and mines.
Some Iraqi commanders don’t emphasize worst-case scenarios, worried about scaring their troops. Hussein said he wanted his men to be prepared for the worst.
They are modern Iraqi warriors, their training shaped by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the vigorous fighting alongside American troops that followed it.
Hussein’s favorite movie is “Black Hawk Down.” His soldiers have seen “American Sniper” and “The Expendables,” some several times. Their Humvees are stenciled with the skull symbol of the American comic book hero “The Punisher,” adopted as an emblem by “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. They play “Call of Duty” and post selfies in uniform flashing peace signs. For meals, they must often deal with MREs, the standard field rations of the U.S. military.
Many of his soldiers wear battlefield apparel manufactured by Southern California-based 5.11 Tactical. They carry American M-4 carbines.
“Our supplies, training and equipment are American,” Hussein said, but, “I’m an Iraqi soldier.”
Around his neck, like some of his soldiers, he wears a religious icon, an amulet etched with a Koranic verse about combating evil. His troops have decorated their Humvees with pictures of lions, and nicknamed themselves “The Lions of God on Earth.”
They are Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds.
Asked what sect he belongs to, Hussein just smiled.
“I’m working for my country,” he said, “Only my country.”
Raised in Baghdad, Hussein, 36, joined the army in 1998. He has lost more than 50 fellow soldiers in battle since. He himself has been wounded several times, the worst a gunshot wound in his right leg from an AK-47 while fighting insurgents to the south in Diyala in 2008.
Now they were preparing to go into battle again, and said a quick prayer.
“Praise Mohammed, peace be upon him, is your morale high?” Hussein shouted.
Yes, his men replied.
In the first town in their path, the Christian hamlet of Bartella, they could expect to find at least 30 Islamic State fighters, he said, likely lurking in abandoned homes.
“Don’t go too fast or get excited,” Hussein warned. “You have to preserve yourselves. You are heroes.”
Mahmoud Mohammed, 26, a Sunni Muslim soldier wearing American tactical sunglasses, had family in a nearby village waiting to be freed from Islamic State.
“They are going to be welcoming us,” he said before they deployed.
Harth Mahmoud, 22, from western Anbar province, hoped to continue the momentum of campaigns that routed Islamic State there from Falluja and Ramadi.
“Tomorrow, God willing, we will drink tea in Mosul,” he said with a grin.
The crowd around him laughed. They knew it would never be that easy. They grew up in a country at war. Many worked with U.S. contractors and soldiers before they trained with them. They wear T-shirts saying “U.S. Navy” and “Glock Perfection.”
A few paused to grab rugs and bow in the dusty field for evening prayer. They came from all corners of the country for this fight: Baghdad and Kirkuk, Anbar and Basra. Soon after, as the sun sank beneath the Nineveh plains, they left to free Bartella.
“We’re like one man,” Hussein said later in Arabic, adding in English, “One team.”
“Quickly, send mortars!”
Five days after the Mosul offensive began on Oct. 17, Hussein was in the thick of battle south of Bartella, barking orders into two radios from an abandoned house strewn with debris.
“They are attacking us!” soldiers yelled back over one radio from the front lines a few hundred yards away.
“We need coalition targeting. We need quick reaction,” Hussein called into the second radio, requesting air support from the U.S.-led coalition.
Hussein had propped himself against an overturned loveseat, helmetless, spare ammo strapped to his chest. One radio was clipped to his uniform above his velcro name tag that said “Ali,” the other was in his left hand. In his right, he held his rifle.
Mortars could be heard exploding outside, where spent casings blanketed portions of the path to his command post. The commander did not flinch. Neither did the half dozen soldiers standing guard beside him. He figured the mortars were still a third of a mile away.
Several empty ammunition boxes lay discarded outside. His men had piled full boxes inside the makeshift command post, a one-room peach cinderblock house with broken windows and a length of plastic ivy still dangling from the starburst tile walls.
“There are about 10 car bombers from Hamadaniya coming at us,” Hussein warned his soldiers over the radio, calm. “In a minute, the American drones will deal with that.”
And then, into the other radio: “You have a sniper. I need you to deal with that.”
“They are attacking our sector!” a soldier shouted over the radio as gunfire sounded in the background.
The sniper was advancing, maybe 300 yards away, Hussein said. The house shook as mortars drew closer.
“They are coming toward us,” Hussein growled over the radio, “So deal with that.
More booms sounded on the other end.
“Mahmoud,” Hussein called, “Do you hear me?”
After a pause, Mahmoud responded with more bad news: “They are targeting us with rockets.”
They had captured two villages before about a dozen Islamic State fighters dug in, sheltering in a network of tunnels beneath scores of cinder block homes. Now, they were in a standoff.
They are modern Muslim warriors but they favor “Black Hawk Down” and their Humvees are inscribed with American comic heroes.
So far, Hussein’s men had survived five car bombs, shooting the cars before they got close enough to do damage. They snapped photos of the dead fighters, wearing long beards, skull caps and camouflage, some with suicide vests.
A soldier arrived to report an injury, this time from a mortar. So far, 13 of Hussein’s soldiers had been wounded, including a lieutenant and a captain. One died: Nafel Atia, 34, a father of four from the southern city of Kut, killed by a mortar strike.
The soldier’s family called and prayed for the special forces as they advanced, Hussein said. He apologized that his men would be unable to attend the funeral, saying, “It’s our duty to be on the front lines.”
Hussein suspected that as they drew closer to Mosul, Islamic State fighters would start using human shields. He had heard reports that the militants were forcing civilians out of surrounding villages and into the city, executing some.
At Hussein’s side, Assistant Capt. Rahad Qasim Kareem, 28, said he heard that his family’s home was among those shot up during an attack by Islamic State militants the day before to the southeast in Kirkuk.
That showed the offensive was working, he said. Iraqi soldiers have been criticized in the past for lacking resolve, fleeing in the face of Islamic State’s offensive on Mosul in summer 2014.
“We’re going to change the way Iraqi soldiers are seen,” said Kareem, a thin figure with a special forces cap, neat moustache and tactical sunglasses.
That afternoon, one of their Humvees was hit by a rocket and burned. No one was injured. But some soldiers were shaken.
Hours later, they rolled out with Hussein’s convoy to Bartella for a meeting with commanders. They passed the charred remains of several car bombs and eerie, empty streets. Mortars boomed on the periphery.
Waleed Abdel Nabi, 28, a slender, cleanshaven father of four from the southern city of Nasiriyah, is no stranger to explosions. He remembers the 2003 U.S. invasion and the suicide bombings that followed, killing several of his buddies, Sunni and Shiite.
That’s what motivated him to join up. He has since been wounded during recent offensives to drive Islamic State from western Iraq.
His cousin Adl Halaf, 35, shorter with a thick moustache, joined too. Now they share a Humvee stocked with Tiger energy drinks and sunflower seeds, listening to Shakira and debating whether she’s American.
Halaf’s cellphone wallpaper is a photo of his 23-year-old cousin, a police officer in western Rutbah shot by Islamic State.
“After they killed him, they burned the body,” he said.
Nabi knew the soldier in their battalion who died, called his wife to tell her the news and heard her collapse. He still carries his late comrade’s phone.
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)
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)
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)
With the convoy parked on a side street in Bartella awaiting their commander, Nabi scanned their surroundings. The town, like all they had freed so far, had been empty for two years. No civilians welcomed them. Instead, they were greeted by pastel houses pocked with bullet holes, each gaping door and shattered window a potential redoubt for snipers.
“Today there was not any progress,” Nabi said, sounding tired.
He could feel a fierce fight coming. Last summer, when they freed the oil town of Qayyarah to the south from militants, Hussein’s men mortared a house where snipers were shooting from the roof, only to later discover a family had been hiding inside.
The family was unharmed, but Nabi never forgot.
Now he sensed the enemy drawing near. Under his black special forces cap, his dark eyes darted from side to side. He turned up his radio, leaning in the door. Was that Islamic State chatter?
Fellow soldiers gathered around Nabi’s Humvee to listen. What they heard did not bode well.
“They are asking for reinforcements,” he said.
At a military checkpoint outside Bartella on Tuesday, families of those held captive by Islamic State pinned their hopes on the Golden Division.
Several miles west, about 40 militants were sending a half dozen suicide bombers toward Hussein’s soldiers, sniping at them while darting between tunnels.
Car bombs destroyed two Humvees. But by day’s end, Hussein’s forces had killed nine militants and forced the rest to flee. The soldiers suffered no injuries or casualties. They seized Islamic State ammunition, an antiaircraft gun and radios they hoped to use to spy. And they captured two villages.
Both were empty.
“Islamic State took most of the civilians here back to Mosul,” Hussein said from his command post the next day, next to some relics salvaged from the villages, including an Arabic-language Bible.
But he said securing the area allowed hundreds of civilians farther west to flee the village of Tob Zawa. They greeted soldiers with white flags signaling their support, jubilant. They cut their beards, borrowed soldiers’ phones to call relatives they had not spoken to in years, and praised the offensive.
“We were waiting for the army to come and save us,” said Wali Sadala, 73, a farmer who drove out on his tractor with his extended family in tow.
“They did a good job, especially Golden Division. They had a good plan to rescue people,” said Saber Jergis, 35.
Civilians from other nearby villages returning later to check their homes thanked Hussein’s troops.
In the village of Sheikh Amir, the soldiers were sweeping for mines when they stumbled upon a set of gold wedding jewelry. Then they found the elderly owner, still in shock after finding his home destroyed.
When he saw the gold, Hussein said, “It was as if he came back to life.”
One of Hussein’s men, Saud Messoud Jamal, 31, is from Sheikh Amir, which his family fled two years ago. He found their home mortared, loaded with mines and robbed; even their 30 sheep were gone. Militants had scrawled graffiti on the walls, including: “God’s messengers.”
“They knew that I was working with Golden Division,” said Jamal.
But recapturing the town, even in ruins, felt like getting his homeland back.
Now he and the rest of Hussein’s men must go house to house, checking to ensure militants don’t re-infiltrate.
Before climbing a hill near his command post to survey the area with his men on Friday, Hussein snatched the starred officer’s epaulets from his shoulders, smiling ruefully.
“Snipers,” he said in English – they know to target officers.
This hill was once a cemetery, with one grave left. As he passed it, Hussein slung an arm over Nabi’s shoulder. The fate of these soldiers weighs heavily on the commander, who is having trouble sleeping. His men hear him on their radios at all hours, checking in.
Hussein doesn’t like calm days like this, so quiet he can hear the wind kicking up dust. Militants attack during dust storms, he said, making use of the cover. And they want this area, a strategic post along the highway to Mosul.
At the top of the hill, Hussein pointed to a radio tower at the edge of Mosul. There was smoke on the horizon, fires set less than a mile away by Islamic State.
The night before, a dozen militants, some of them suicide bombers, had climbed the hill to attack. Hussein’s soldiers were ready to repel them, patrolling with night vision goggles.
They held the line, for now.
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