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Mosul offensive: Suicide bombers, scorched fields and adrenaline

Dispatches from frontline between Kurdish and IS militants report razed villages, huge build-up of troops, confused lines of command

Iraqi forces self-propelled howitzer fires towards Tall al-Tibah, south of Mosul (AFP)

KHAZER, Iraq - On the road to the village of Barzakat, some 15km from Mosul, sat a deserted, bullet-riddled pick-up.

On Tuesday morning, the Islamic State (IS) vehicle was stopped by Peshmerga fighters wielding automatic rifles. Eight IS militants were riding in the pick-up: four of them were killed, then buried by the Kurds a hundred metres from where they fell.

The remaining four managed to get away. At time of writing, the Kurdish fighters were looking for them in the ruins of nearby villages.

A pickup used by IS which was attacked by coalition forces (Bostjan Videmsek/MEE)
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have seen a serious build-up at the eastern frontline near the city of Mosul. But while most of the troops seem euphoric, there is also an undercurrent of anxiety. The nearest IS positions are two kilometres away.

'Around here, everything is riddled with mines – absolutely everything!'

- Muquadem Said, Kurdish officer

Out in the open, the Iraqi-Kurdish coalition's troops are vulnerable to artillery or suicide attacks. The enemy could strike at any time.

Muquadem Said is an officer with the Fifth Regiment of the Zeryhwan Kurdish division. "Our biggest problems are the suicide bombers," he said, "the car bombs and the mines. Around here, everything is riddled with mines – absolutely everything!

"That is why our progress over the last two days has been so slow. Our units have to clear out the villages, only then can we move on."

On Wednesday, the area around Barzakat was one of the furthest eastern frontlines within the current scope of the offensive.

American military planes scorched the sky above. Their main function was bombing IS positions in the city and its surroundings. Now and then, heavy artillery joined in to pound Iraq's second-biggest city.

Smoke seemed to rise up everywhere. During the last three days, at least a dozen nearby villages were razed to the ground by air raids. Reduced to rubble, these hamlets are now counted as "liberated".

In one village, I came across a nearly petrified little boy staring off into space

In one of them, I came across a petrified little boy staring off into space. In another, all I could find was a pair of sheep. What walls remained in these settlements were covered with IS graffiti, something that has long been a part of the group's folklore.

Disfigured animal carcasses littered the craters on freshly bombed roads. In the middle of a two-lane thoroughfare, an unexploded rocket stuck up vertically from the sand. The Kurdish fighters had decided to mark it with a small red flag.

Iraqi soldiers, 60km south of Mosul, on October 19, 2016 (AFP)
Young men careered up and down the road, high on the adrenaline of what was happening and what was yet to come. Around here, driving can the most dangerous part of a correspondent's job.

Everywhere, soldiers dug trenches or set up defensive mounds of sand. Kilometres and kilometres of grass and fields had been scorched, part of the IS plan to try and stop bombers with fire and smoke. Hot winds roiled the desert sands.

Two government Black Hawk choppers flew over the frontline at a dangerously low altitude. They could easily have become a pair of targets, as they completed an unnecessary manoeuvre even the most inexperienced pilots shouldn't be excused for attempting.

Congestion puts lives at risk from attack

Chaotic traffic flowed in all directions, both towards the front line and away from it. Here, where it is least needed, potentially dangerous knots of congestion constantly formed. A single grenade or rocket from IS positions could easily massacre a dozen or more men.

Reinforcements kept rolling towards the front line, which is jointly controlled by Kurdish fighters and the soldiers of the Iraqi government. Many of the new arrivals were volunteers, who'd simply picked up a weapon and gone off to fight against IS.

The images on the main road from Erbil to Mosul reminded me of 2003, the first fall of Mosul, when the city became a hot destination for robbers and other sorts of war tourists.

Iraqi villagers walk past oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area on October 19, 2016 (AFP)
This time around, the lines of command seemed far from clearly drawn, as became readily apparent when a convoy of at least 70 Iraqi regular and special forces armoured vehicles approached the front line at high speed, joined by a number of black-uniformed Shia militiamen.

The convoy clearly didn't have time for the traffic chaos on all sides, with those in front quick to let everyone know that they had the right of way. Left and right, people threw themselves into the dirt to escape.

The drivers, many of whom were themselves refugees, swerved in something akin to panic. Even soldiers of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) were giving way.

At the Mosul front line, more than 10,000 of them were assembled. The number could easily double in the foreseeable future.

The chaos of frontline life

Muquadem Said believes that the anti-IS forces have "done well" so far, but that the battle for Mosul will be long and rough.

"We've now come to a halt," the officer said. "Only the Iraqi army can go on. This is the deal struck by Erbil and Baghdad. It is a deal we're going to respect."

What matters, he said, is the eventual retreat of IS from Mosul, something that is of paramount importance for the entire Middle East. As things stand, the Kurds are not allowed into downtown Mosul. The same goes for the Shia militias. But the conditions at the frontline are so chaotic that virtually anything could happen.

Kurdish troops ahead of moving on to Mosul (Bostjan Videmsek/MEE)
On Wednesday, it was far from clear who exactly was in command of this vast and chaotic military operation.

Even now, in its early phases, at least 30,000 troops have been deployed – Kurds, government troops, Iraqi and Iranian Shia militiamen, volunteers.

"We are cooperating well," Said said. "No one is allowed to act without consulting the others. We have a common enemy and a common goal.

A single grenade or rocket from the IS positions could easily have massacred a dozen or more men

"The majority of the Islamic State forces scattered as soon as they saw us coming. Then they sent in the suicide bombers.

"They're terrified of us. They know very well what we're capable of in battle. The Kurds, we know very well how to deal with them!"

The real battle is only just beginning

Said's soldiers were doing their best to set up temporary shelter in the nearby houses (or those that had somehow survived the coalition bombing). During this brief intermission, the engineering corps did their best to service the armoured vehicles. Most of the vehicles were of American origin, though a number of them had apparently been home-made in local workshops and kitted out Mad Max style.

The images we gathered through the day across the front line had a post-apocalyptic feeling.

Iraqi forces near the village of Tall al-Tibah, 3south of Mosul, on October 19, 2016 (AFP)
Iraqi government troops proceeded on to Mosul, while the Kurdish fighters gave in to the temptation of premature victory boasts, including a lot of flag-brandishing and loud renditions of traditional battle songs.

They will have to claw their way into the tunnel-riddled Mosul city centre, which is said to be heavily mined

Many of them were seasoned veterans from battles of the '80s and '90s. On average, the Kurdish fighters were older than the Iraqi government troops. Many of the latter looked disquietingly wet behind the ears, yet the brunt of the heavy fighting is sure to land on their shoulders.

They are the ones who will have to claw their way into the tunnel-riddled Mosul city centre, which is said to be heavily mined.

The real battle for Mosul is just beginning.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.