MOSUL, IRAQ —
The walkie-talkie in the commander’s hand buzzes and crackles as soldiers line up their humvees and tanks, readying themselves to enter Islamic State territory.
“Tell all the men to put on helmets,” are the orders over the walkie-talkie. “I don’t want to see anyone without a helmet!”
A few minutes later, many of the soldiers still don’t have helmets, including the commander with the walkie-talkie, who wears a camouflage cap.
Five full Iraqi divisions are fighting in the latest offensive to re-take IS-controlled northwestern Mosul, including the Army, Federal Police and Special Forces known as the Golden Division and the Emergency Response Division.
A few kilometers from the battle the Iraqi Army’s 16th division’ appears gleeful as they get out of their vehicles to wait on the dusty once-residential street for the next order to move forward. Some men tease each other and take selfies.
“Look at my face,” says 21-year-old Ghaith, laughing. “I’m made from the same dust and water as this guy. Why is he more handsome than me?”
Tattooed on Ghaith’s arm are the names of two of his brothers, killed by suicide bombers in Baghdad five years ago and the words “never forget” in Arabic.
‘Scared at first’
Only the gunners perched inside humvees with their heads and weapons exposed on the top appear to remain on high alert as we wait. If the battle goes wrong, they are in the most danger. Most of them wear helmets.
“I was scared at first,” says gunner Ali el-Babli, in a rare admission in this world of bravura. “But after two years I’m used to it.”
The clamor from the nearby IS-controlled neighborhoods is constant. Airstrikes crash into buildings and militants fire machine guns at helicopters overhead. Plumes of smoke shoot hundreds of feet into the air as car bombs explode. An IS mortar lobbed clear over Iraqi front lines falls in the field across the street.
The 16th Division has not seen action in weeks, and soldiers tell us the long days and nights spent in crowded make-shift bases while airstrikes and mortars pound the militants nearby has taken its toll. The waiting, soldiers say, is harder than the fighting.
“Just five or 10 minutes,” Lt. Col. Amar Younis tells us as he whips out of his commander’s office, a card-table set up inside an abandoned home. “And you will see us beating IS with your own eyes.”
Around 5 a.m. that morning, more than an hour before the units began lining up for battle, Salim, a cook at one of the 16th’s bases, had rattled a spoon in a metal can, shouting at the men to get up.
Most bounded out of bed, bypassing breakfast to grab their gear. But as the cool morning fades into glaring noon sun, so does the excitement. The militants’ defense has proven fierce, and a long night of air attacks has not broken their lines.
IS heat-seeking missiles are threatening Iraqi tanks, the first line of Iraqi ground forces, and drone cameras show cars patrolling IS-controlled areas. In IS neighborhoods these days civilians don’t drive cars. They are either car bombs, or gunmen, or both.
Still waiting on the street to deploy, many soldiers crouch along a wall to stay out of the sun. Body armor leans against the concrete and higher-ranking officers have returned to the base.
Orders come to move out, and the men race into their vehicles, engines rattle and the line pulls out. After traveling a block closer to the battle, they pull over again. Men get out of their humvees, some looking deflated. Someone brings lunch, plastic bags full of the usual meal of rice-and-beans and small chunks of meat in white styrofoam containers.
Chatter turns away from battle and some men show pictures of their children on their mobile phones. Others show videos of themselves fishing by throwing grenades into small ponds.
El-Babli, the gunner, shares his biscuits and tells stories of recent victories. “We took the last area in record time,” he says. "I killed two IS militants when we liberated the shopping mall. My commander gave me two days off for that.”
Some men are still eating when the orders finally come in the early afternoon. Styrofoam trays are cast aside and the row of vehicles dissipates in a matter of minutes. They head for the fields surrounding an isolated suburban neighborhood on a hill. Parked at the base of the hill are cars and trucks that may or may not be laden with explosives.
A technical team of about five men enter the field on foot, searching for IEDs among the weeds. Tanks rumble to the front, parking in a row a couple of hundred meters from the IS-held neighborhood. The cacophony of battle sounds continues, as black smoke from another division’s battle streams into the sky.
About 20 civilians attempt to escape the hill, fleeing with a white flag in front of them.
"See those buildings over there?” says Lt. Col. Younis after firing a machine gun. “We are going to take those buildings and we are going to sleep there tonight.”
The hours that follow are painstaking, with tanks and other vehicles re-positioning themselves closer to the militants meter by meter. Soldiers say the pace of the fight varies as much as the terrain they fight in. Victory for them will mean reaching the next line on the map where they again wait for orders.
For politicians, a victory in Mosul will be a defining moment in the battle with IS. But for the army, it will just mean re-deploying resources to Tal Afar, an Iraqi city still entirely controlled by IS or other areas, like Ramadi, where sporadic fighting continues.
“After this fight there will be more wars to win,” says Major Abass Aziz.