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'Daesh is right there:' Kurdish fighters advance toward Mosul

MEE accompanied Peshmerga forces during an operation that they hope will pave the way for the recapture of IS's capital in Iraq
Fighters from the Kurdish Peshmerga forces walk through smoke near the frontline of battle against IS (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

The ochre dust raised by the ballet of armoured vehicles and pickups blends with the thick black smoke of fires lit to clear the roadsides. Tired but smiling, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters raise their hands in the air, forming a victory sign with their fingers, as their cars wind in the recently recaptured no man’s land.

Sitting in the back of a moving Humvee, Harem Zhyan protects his nose and mouth from the dusty hot breeze with a red scarf. Small beads of sweat adorn the soldier’s forehead as he excitedly describes his first day on the front line: “We launched the attack from Hasan Sham village then we went to Zahrat Khatun, Mufti and Tal Aswad. Thank God the operation was a success,” he said grinning.  

Early on Sunday morning, Peshmerga forces started the first day of an offensive aimed at retaking territories east of Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) group's so-called capital in Iraq. The large-scale operation, in which about 5,500 Peshmerga and Zeravani special forces were involved, has driven IS out of several abandoned villages belonging to the Kakei and Shabak Kurdish minorities who fled the insurgents two years ago.

"This is one of the many shaping operations expected to increase pressure on ISIL [IS] in and around Mosul in preparation for an eventual assault on the city," the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said in a statement.

“In order to take back Mosul we will have to wait for the international coalition and the Iraqi army, but Peshmerga forces will be part of the operation,” Brigadier General Bahjat Taymes told MEE. “Where we are right now is the closest position to Mosul. Daesh is right in front of us,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

The operation aims to extend the frontline for anti-IS forces hoping eventually to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The attack came just before Iraqi forces entered besieged Fallujah early on Monday morning, and one week after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the beginning of the operation to retake Raqqa, the group’s largest base in Syria.

The operation is backed by the US-led coalition warplanes, which destroyed at least two car bombs on the first day. MEE also witnessed several English-speaking soldiers from the international coalition stationed a few kilometers from the frontline, who asked for their nationality not to be revealed.

A fighter covers his face as he drives towards the frontline east of Mosul (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

Looking into the eyes of a decapitated head

“This is Mufti. The Peshmerga attacked at four in the morning,” explained Dana Salah as he parked in the vicinity of the village, just next to an IS militant’s head. Stepping out of the car, another Kurdish soldier lunged to grab the head by its hair and get a closer look.

“That’s an IS fighter who came from abroad to fight against us. As Kurds we have to defend ourselves no matter what,” the Peshmerga fighter said, looking into the man's lifeless eyes. “We are not unfair; we love humanity,” he added before throwing the head behind a low stone wall.

Inside the village, the fighters wander around, following the network of tunnels dug by the militants during the IS occupation. Inside a building in ruins, a dozen Kurds gathered around a tunnel entrance, seemingly impressed by the skillfully designed construction. “How deep is it?” one fighter asked. “Five meters,” another replied, looking at the bottom of the pit.

“They would hide there when the coalition warplanes bombed them,” said the Kurdish fighter Shorsh Mohamad. On Monday, the insurgents started burning areas near their positions to hinder the coalition’s air strikes. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga resumed their offensive with the aim of moving the Kurdish frontlines closer to Mosul, coincidentally establishing control over areas both claimed by the Kurdish region and the central government.

On Saturday, a day before the Peshmerga-led operation started, General Sirwan Barzani, a nephew of President Massoud Barzani, told MEE that the Kurdistan Regional Government's plan is “to take Qaraqosh and the Christian towns” in the Nineveh plains. “With or without the Iraqi army, we have to liberate this area,” he said, before adding that they would need “two or three steps” – and probably weeks - to take the Christian stronghold, where 75,000 people used to live.

Located 30 kilometers from the so-called Caliphate’s Iraqi capital, taking Qaraqosh would be the first step in the actual battle for Mosul, according to the General. “Going there means going to Mosul,” he said.