BARTELLA, Iraq – There is something awesome and terrifying about hearing artillery shells hit nearby again and again. It makes one feel small and impotent beneath the epic power of modern war.
That was the feeling late last week on the Nawaran-Bashiqa front line, as coalition forces supported a Kurdish Peshmerga push to surround and liberate villages in the Nineveh Plain on their way to retake Mosul from Islamic State.
ISIS was putting up stiff resistance. The US-led coalition, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, was supporting numerous operations along more than 100 kilometers of front that involved a complex interlocking of Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga units.
At night we could hear what local Kurdish fighters said were US helicopters hovering overhead. During the day the fighters would often describe how effective coalition special forces had been in neutralizing ISIS and aiding the advance. The US secretary of defense, Ash Carter, was in Iraq over the weekend to add motivation and make sure that the offensive keeps its momentum.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian said that the Iraqi Army was continuing to advance on Mosul, a key goal of the coalition’s war against the extremists and the last major Iraqi city held by ISIS. “They have retaken many villages, as they get closer we expect fighting to get tougher,” he said.
The Mosul offensive began on October 17. The first few days seemed to go quickly as ISIS showed only light resistance.
Hundreds of square kilometers were liberated and villages fell one by one on the front lines in the Khazir and Gwer areas south and west of Mosul. However, “the enemy gets an understanding and feel for what the Iraqis are doing and we see that on the battlefield,” explained Dorrian.
As ISIS began to dig in its heels in Bakhdida and Bashiqa, two key villages that the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga wanted to take, the US and its allies upped their strikes. According to Dorrian, 1,500 munitions were used in six days of air strikes from October 17 to 22. “We destroyed more than 100 fighting positions, 22 vehicle- based improvised explosive devices, 14 tunnels and 52 mortars and artillery pieces,” Dorrian said. “That’s in addition to the mortars and heavy machine guns the Iraqis have hit with their own advancing infantry.”
Some of the Peshmerga who aimed to retake Bashiqa over the weekend complained that there was not enough coalition support.
On the front line we witnessed numerous mortars targeting the Kurds and snipers. Dorrian said that this represented an “immutable truth about air power.” It may be effective, he said, but it can never do everything for ground forces.
“We understand the dynamic because the Peshmerga and Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are partners, and they are fighting for their lives and freedom against a determined enemy which is very cunning.”
However not every demand for air support can be met.
“We are conducting more strikes with more ordnance than at any time of the campaign, we are having record-setting [number of strikes] every single day, we know what is at stake,” Dorrian said.
“The Iraqi [Army] and Peshmerga are risking their lives against an enemy that threatens every corner of the world.”
Part of this relentless campaign has been a major expansion of air strikes, from an average of around 13 a week, to 66 in the past days. “We have advisers with the Peshmerga and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and we speak with the military leaderships every day and coordinate our fire to support their advance and sequence their attacks with their own capability and supplement it with ours.”
The coalition has relied on air supremacy and pinpoint munitions up until now in open terrain stretched across fields and villages.
But as the battle for Mosul creeps into its western suburbs, Dorrian said that there will be adjustments in coalition support. They will continue to provide logistical support, advice and assistance on the ground and an “eye in the sky” to aid the offensive alongside the training the coalition has done over the years.
Part of that training has involved outfitting Iraqi Army and Peshmerga units with weapons, gear and vehicles. The centerpiece of that project is the Iraq Counter- Terrorism Force, or the Golden Division. Over the weekend, its black-uniformed men rode black-painted vehicles to lead the attack on Bartella and Bakhdida, securing the two formerly Christian towns from ISIS.
“The Golden Division is the crown jewel of the force that will liberate this country from ISIS, the highest level troops that put them alongside some of the best light infantry in the world. We spent a lot of time training and working with them,” Dorrian said.
The Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force’s discipline is clearly evident.
Unlike their counterparts in some units, they are not caught napping or lounging around. The men have pride in their elite status and display an esprit de corps.
They also have a powerful symbol in their leader, Gen. Fadhil al-Barwari, who is Kurdish. In an Iraq that is often seen as divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, the Golden Division is a symbol of unity.
Dorrian stressed that it is important to be patient and let this operation take its course. ISIS is trying diversionary attacks, striking at Kirkuk where its fighters killed dozens of combatants deep behind the lines, and set a chemical plant on fire north of Qayarrah. Fumes from the fire forced coalition forces at Qayarrah Air Base to don masks.
“It won’t be easy or pleasant” going forward, Dorrian said. However, once Mosul is liberated the ability of ISIS to inspire followers and claim to run a “state” will be destroyed in Iraq.