BASHIQA, IRAQ —
The adult son of the peshmerga commander nearly collapsed when they told him his 55-year-old father had been killed by a jihadist suicide bomber in the northern Iraq town of Bashiqa. The bomber had emerged from a confounding network of tunnels in the wrecked town early Tuesday and had run at the veteran peshmerga with his arms out in an embrace.
The commander's son, who would never know a father's hug again, sat in an SUV and wept.
From then on, events moved fast. Much of the day in Bashiqa turned into a riot of gunfire and chase-the-jihadist. For two hours, starting at midday Iraqi time, there was pandemonium in the center of a town once synonymous with olive oil. Kurdish peshmerga were trying to avoid improvised explosive devices and clear remaining jihadists, who kept popping up to attack them.
Peshmerga fighters who were eating were interrupted by more fighting as jihadists emerged from nearby tunnels Bashiqa, Iraq, Nov. 8, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
"We have the town under control now," Lt. Col. Omar Abdulrahman told me. "Except for the IEDs and the tunnels," he conceded. "We will have to go house to house and that will take a long time."
Earlier, over the radio, I heard peshmerga ordered to try to fill in tunnel entrances to block suicidal jihadists from emerging. But the tunnels are honeycombed under houses.
An entrance is shown to a network of honey-combing tunnels underneath Bashiqa, Iraq, Nov. 8, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA).
Second day of fighting
Tuesday marked a second day of frustration for the peshmerga.
On Monday, they'd expected Bashiqa to fall within eight or so hours of an assault being mounted on the town, the last held by the Islamic State terror group in Iraqi Kurdistan. But Monday turned into a long, tough day of vicious fighting that saw peshmerga casualties, including two female Kurdish fighters killed in a mortar blast and two peshmerga killed by snipers firing monstrous homemade guns capable of hurtling a round at a target four kilometers away.
A huge sniper rifle, homemade by Islamic State fighters, is able to fire a round at a target four kilometers away, Nov. 8, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
During the night, fighting continued. By the early-morning hours, the peshmerga thought they had control of the town. A group of IS fighters who tried to flee west were all shot dead.
During the entire assault, the peshmerga managed to catch just three jihadists. Unconfirmed reports suggest IS emirs may have executed 15 militants, several of them wounded, who had tried to surrender Monday.
Watch related video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke:
A media group was summoned Tuesday to the ruins of Bashiqa for a press conference with, we were told, a top-ranking Kurdistan Regional Government official. The first sign that not all was calm came with the route we had to take into town — approaching from the south down a long, meandering and, in part, desert track, as opposed to established tarmac roads.
Not one house or store in Bashiqa, Iraq, has escaped some damage, and hundreds are now just rubble, Nov. 8, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
In the town, amid wreckage and debris and houses mangled into strange wave-like shapes, exhausted peshmerga rested by their Humvees and towering armored personnel carriers that look like something out of a “Mad Max” movie. Some could be seen worshipping on prayer mats, others ate from plastic foam containers.
A peshmerga hauled one of the jihadists' heavy homemade sniper rifles up on to the back of a pickup. Another banged with a stone at the damaged front mechanism of his military bulldozer, which had been caught in a suicide bomber's blast. He pointed to the spray of bullet holes on the left side of his vehicle.
Battle ebbs and flows
And as we made our way to a group of large houses, gunbattles erupted in two different areas, with bullets ricocheting just a street away. Peshmerga scurried to confront unseen attackers, who they feared might unleash suicide blasts. In a house near where I was standing on a roof terrace, peshmerga chased a jihadist in a tunnel, but he evaded them.
Peshmerga rush to gun battles that erupted in two different areas of Bashiqa, Iraq, Nov. 8, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
Warplanes circled overhead ready to strike, if coordinates could be supplied for a bombing run that wouldn't hit peshmerga or reporters. With the forces intermingled, only two airstrikes could be mounted.
For two hours the battle raged, ebbing and flowing, sometimes taking on a rhythm as automatic and small-arms gunfire was exchanged; at other times, swelling into a cacophonous roar with RPG7s and a Dushka heavy machine gun joining in.
Senior Kurdish peshmerga and their soldiers start moving briskly toward the sound of gunfire in Bashiqa, Iraq, Nov. 8, 2016. (J. Dettmer/VOA)
To the north of the town, a suicide bomb exploded, sending up a dark cloud of smoke. AK-47 bullets whooshed past the roof terrace, forcing me and my fixer to crouch under a wall. Very close by, there was the pop of a handgun being fired in our direction. My driver, Mohammed, a retired peshmerga officer, arrived armed with an assault rifle and stood by.
And then it quieted.
But as we pulled out of Bashiqa, a warplane roared down, firing off a missile. Yet another huge cloud of smoke was added to the town's skyline. We didn't get the press conference, and the peshmerga may face another night of alarm and close-quarter urban combat before they can call Bashiqa their own.