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The Fight to Retake Mosul: Inside the Assault on the Islamic State's Stronghold in Iraq

The Iraqi army and its allies are pushing to retake Iraq's second-largest city from the Islamic State, but the offensive has not been off to a promising start.

by Campbell MacDiarmid
Mar 26 2016, 1:37pm

A soldier stands in a position outside Makhmour controlled by Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces on March 25, 2016. (Photo by Alice Martins/VICE News)

A battered pickup truck idled on the side of the road outside Makhmour, northern Iraq, on Friday afternoon. Inside, a ragtag group of Iraqi army soldiers painted a discouraging picture of the progress made so far in an operation just launched to retake nearby villages under control of the Islamic State (IS).

The international coalition that's supporting the ground offensive says the operation is proceeding according to plan, but on the ground the different allied factions — which will eventually be expected to coordinate a final assault on the IS stronghold of Mosul — display a deep mutual distrust. And the jihadist fighters they want to dislodge are holding their ground.

Ali Basra, a 22-year-old soldier in a blood-streaked uniform, recounted how that morning his unit had been held at bay by snipers, who wounded 10 of his comrades from the 72nd Brigade, 15th Division.

"We surrounded the village we were sent to take but we haven't yet entered it," he said.

The Iraqi Security Forces and Sunni tribal fighters launched the offensive Thursday, with Kurdish Peshmerga and the international coalition in a supporting role. While some commanders described it as the first step in the operation to retake Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, its immediate goals were to clear the villages west of Makhmour held by IS, or ISIS.

'We don't trust the Iraqi army.'

Thousands of Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, soldiers have deployed to Makhmour, on the Nineveh Plains, in recent weeks, using it as a staging area for a push on Mosul, 45 miles (75 km) to the north across the Tigris River.

IS fighters briefly overran Makhmour in August 2014, before it was retaken by Peshmerga forces. Since then it has remained within range of the militant group's mortars and rockets.

On March 19, Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin was killed when an IS rocket landed on a US base near the town. Cardin was part of a contingent of some 200 Marines sent to shore up Iraqi defenses and provide artillery support, according to Iraqi soldiers who spoke on Friday.

When VICE News visited Makhmour, a Peshmerga spokesman would not let reporters go to the front line.

"We don't trust the Iraqi army," said Lieutenant Ahmed Jaf, at Makhmour camp. "Maybe they haven't cleared the area properly and ISIS fighters are hiding behind the lines."

Jaf said the immediate aim of the push was retaking the town of Qayyarah, on the western bank of the Tigris river.

"Right now they are still four or five kilometers east of the river," Jaf said, adding that the ISF and Sunni Arab tribal fighters had advanced just a short distance.

A Peshmerga commander sits in a room in a position controlled by Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces outside Makhmour, Iraq, on March 25, 2016.. (Photo by Alice Martins/VICE News)

An Iraqi officer and an international coalition spokesman insisted the operation was making good progress.

"Our information is that ISIS is not staying and fighting, they're just running away," said Colonel Latif Hashim, who commanded an artillery battery from the 15th Division outside of Makhmour.

"So far we have managed to secure a number of villages," he said, as he ordered his men to fire Katyusha rockets and artillery rounds at Qayarra, about eight kilometres to the west.

Related: Inside Taza, the Iraqi Town Gassed by the Islamic State

Eight villages had been retaken by Friday, according to the international coalition, but Peshmerga leaders and a number of Iraqi soldiers said several of those remained contested.

"They've taken three villages so far," said Peshmerga Major General Namiq Suwara, vice commander of the Kurdish base at Makhmour, speaking from a position on the old frontline. Two of those villages had already been retaken by Peshmerga and Sunni Arab tribesmen earlier in February but not held, he added. "Nasr has not yet fallen," he said, referring to one of the villages which the international coalition said had been retaken.

As well as snipers, advancing fighters also encountered suicide bombers in explosive-filled trucks and hidden improvised explosive devices. But resistance was relatively light, and both Peshmerga and Sunni tribesmen criticized the speed of the advance.

"There are only a few ISIS there, and in two days they couldn't take control of these villages," said Suwara. "I don't believe they are motivated or brave, the units the Iraqi Security Forces have sent here."

Outside his position, his men were even more blunt in their criticism. "If we had their weapons and equipment we could take those villages in two hours," said Abdullah Aziz, a 42-year-old Peshmerga fighter.

Abdullah Aziz, a Peshmerga soldier, stands in a position outside Makhmour controlled by Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces on March 25, 2016. (Photo by Alice Martins/VICE News)

The Sunni Arab tribesmen fighting alongside the ISF were just as unhappy with their allies.

"The Iraqi army are moving so slowly, it's very difficult," said Sheikh Nizhan, head of the Laheb tribe.

The 300-odd men he said he commanded are part of a grouping of Sunni Arab tribal fighters who have received weapons and training from the international coalition and are expected to play a role in administering areas retaken from IS.

Speaking on a road outside the recently retaken Kudila village, Nizhan chafed at the Iraqi army's control over the operation. "Baghdad wants to command everything and to keep us weak," he said. The central government in Baghdad is dominated by Shiites.

An international coalition spokesman reached via telephone said the operation was going according to plan.

Related: The US-led Coalition Bombed the University of Mosul for Being an Islamic State Headquarters

"I think it's about what they were expecting," said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely on the operation. "They've had some success."

It was premature to talk of retaking Mosul, he said, but added that the operation "is going to set conditions for additional follow-on operations."

The operation would not necessarily ensure the safety of the American troops stationed near Makhmour, he said: "It's a war zone. You're going to have indirect fire, rocket fire, no matter what."

At one base on Friday, an American soldier inspected trucks carrying concrete blast wall sections before waving them through a gate bearing a hand-painted sign reading Camp Swift. Beyond the razor wire and dirt-filled hesco barriers, heavy machinery could be seen reinforcing the American positions.

Tom Robinson contributed reporting for this story.

Follow Campbell MacDiarmid on Twitter: @CampbellMacD

Follow Alice Martins on Instagram: martinsalicea

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