The troops stationed on the ridge over Qaryat al-Abasi were relaxed at first. From their dusty vantage point, they watched attempts to drive Isis fighters from the Iraqi village below, providing frequent tank and heavy machine-gun support to their comrades.
I am embedded with the 5th Brigade of the Iraqi army’s 9th Armoured Division, which is now based around the town of al-Kuwayr, situated to the south-west of Mosul. As we waited, stray bullets from the battle occasionally whizzed overhead but the men continued to mill around, texting and smoking. One crouched and brewed tea in the open, coaxing a fire from broken wooden boxes.
When Iraqi helicopters, including an Mi-35 gunship, appeared and launched rocket and autocannon attacks on Isis positions, the soldiers mounted their vehicles to get a better view, taking phone videos from the bonnets of armoured Humvees and cheering as black smoke rose over the village.
Qaryat al-Abasi is a small part of a major operation to retake Iraq’s second city, Mosul, which lies about 30 kilometres north-east. It fell to the jihadists in mid-2014 during a shock offensive. It is now the last major urban stronghold of Isis in Iraq, a symbol of their crumbling self-claimed caliphate.
Mosul acquired this symbolic significance soon after its capture, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even making a speech at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the city in July 2014.
Mosul was once home to roughly two million people, and it is estimated as many as 1.5 million are still in the area. The Isis force defending the city is thought to number as many as 8,000, and is reported to have constructed extensive fortifications, rigging buildings with explosives, mining roads, and even digging trenches filled with oil, to be set alight in the hope of concealing their positions with clouds of smoke.
Analysts predict that the fight will last for months. But pushing out Isis from Mosul will mark only the beginning of intense political squabbling over territory, security and governance in Iraq. Some even fear that it will herald further violence in a region gripped by rising sectarianism.
The 9th Division is a well-equipped force, hardened by successful campaigns against Isis elsewhere in Iraq, including the central cities of Ramadi and Tikrit. However, they face stiff resistance here from an entrenched enemy using ambushes, snipers and terrible, vehicle-borne suicide bombings.
This new offensive was
the second attempt in two days to take the town. A previous foray was driven back by a surprise Isis attack. “[When] we went to the village, they jumped up through the tunnels [and attacked] so we had to retreat,” a senior commander explained, asking to be referred to only as Major Mohammed. He said that the area was a warren of such fortifications.
After that, the resistance was fierce again. An armoured bulldozer dragged out two disabled Russian-made BMP infantry vehicles from the battle in the space of an hour. One had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, often used in anti-tank bombardments. A young soldier inside it was killed and another had his legs blown off. The casualties were brought up to the ridge in a separate truck and transferred to an ambulance. A cousin of the dead man wailed in sorrow and a friend collapsed against the back tyre of a Humvee truck, sobbing.
Behind them, the persistent rattle of small arms echoed around Kani Harami, a village on the road back to their operating base. Occasionally a cloud of soil and smoke mushroomed in the distance, followed seconds later by the boom of an explosion. The troops paid little attention. They were holding the village, they told me, and the noise was just engineers clearing out explosive devices left behind
by the Isis fighters, who were now retreating.
Then a burst of incoming gunfire came from the supposedly safe town. It wasn’t, it seemed, under Iraqi control after all. A mortar landed with a whoosh just 200 metres wide of the troops on the ridge. Then another landed a few minutes later, this time in the middle of a group of vehicles, spraying them with dirt, rocks and fragments. A moustachioed soldier who
had been caught in the open was injured in the blast.
Everyone scrabbled for cover before the Mi-35 gunship made more low runs in an attempt to suppress the Isis positions. Its 23-millimetre rounds came thudding overhead.
Part of the group of Iraqi fighters pulled back, regrouping in a relatively sheltered hollow before moving for their base. They looped around and away from Kani Harami – the town was no longer deemed safe.
This is the reality of the Mosul offensive in many areas. About 80 villages were taken in the first week by a combined force, primarily made up of Iraqi troops and the regional Kurdish government’s peshmerga fighters.
The fighting is becoming harder as they get closer to Mosul itself. Isis’s guerrilla tactics are exacting a heavy toll on the coalition forces. The previous evening, military doctors at a field hospital near Qaryat al-Abasi told me that they had treated around 30 casualties just that day alone. Some of their patients were missing limbs and were suffering from catastrophic head injuries.
There are also reports of Isis committing atrocities in order to spread terror in the region. UN human rights staff have received reports of summary executions and brutality towards fleeing civilians.
At the time of writing, Qaryat al-Abasi remains under Isis control, seen on situation maps as a stubborn circle of black in a sea of territory recently taken by the Iraqi and Kurdish fighters.
The battle for control against Isis seems likely to get still harder from here, first around the Tigris, where the marshland and trees will nullify many of the advantages of mechanised infantry and then in Mosul itself. There, bitter urban fighting seems inevitable, and with it so do heavy casualties. It is likely that any civilians still trapped inside the city will suffer disproportionately.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage