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Smiling children, open graves: Scenes from the battle for Mosul

Smiling children, open graves: Scenes from the battle for Mosul
Children greet Iraqi humvee in Qayyarah. "We hope you make it to Mosul," they said. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske)

Covering the military offensive to drive Islamic State out of the city of Mosul, I traveled Thursday and Friday with photographer Carolyn Cole to Qayyarah Airfield West (often called “Q West” and “Key West”).

The base opened after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it has a complicated history: The U.S. Army transferred it to Iraqi control, only to see it seized by Islamic State two years ago. This summer, it was recaptured and rebuilt for joint use by the Iraqis and the U.S- led coalition that is helping in their fight.

The air base about 40 miles south of Mosul is home to fewer than 1,000 coalition troops. It still doesn’t have a massive chow hall, PX or even a post office. But there’s “Rocket City,” where soldiers described how they fire the HIMAR (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) capable of reaching Mosul.

We toured the U.S. side of the base with Maj. Chris Parker, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, meeting several members of the 101st Airborne (“Black Hearts”) Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., as well as service members from Fontana and Riverside in California.

We stopped at the coalition’s joint operations center — where Iraqi and coalition commanders confer surrounded by computer screens and maps — just just in time for an airstrike.

Then we headed to the Iraqi side of the base to meet with their commanders. We stayed the night in a tent, which shook several times as artillery fired nearby.

On Friday, Maj. Gen. Najim Jabouri and Brig. Gen. Firas Bashar showed us around villages south of Mosul recently recaptured from Islamic State. We saw the graves of those killed by militants, spoke with soldiers whose relatives were kidnapped by them and saw men held and questioned for possible ties to Islamic State.

Here’s our story of what we saw, and below, some scenes from our days there:

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@mollyhf

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