GANUS AL-ULYA, IRAQ —
Bullets whizzed into the sand outside the Iraqi Army base, an abandoned home on the edge of the village, as two wounded men are carried into pick-up trucks, just back from a nearby battle. The vehicles race into the desert, leaving plumes of dust in their wake.
Dozens of miles from Mosul, on the Iraqi Army’s southern front, soldiers battling Islamic State here are moving forward, slowly capturing farms, towns and villages against fierce resistance.
Coalition support is more of a vague idea than an every day reality here, soldiers tell us, as the barrage of coalition airstrikes mainly focus on the city of Mosul. All agree more air support would be useful, but otherwise opinions vary on the United States’ president elect Donald Trump, and what it will mean for their fight.
Some say he seems tough on terrorism, a stance they support. Many soldiers here have lost family and friends either fighting the militants, or murdered as civilians. Other soldiers say Trump seems to dislike Muslims, a stance abhorrent to them.
Still others hold both opinions.
“I hope things will change in a good way,” says Col. Khayun Manati Jabor. “We have heard that he is a racist, but still if he helps us, it will be good.”
The chief complaint about the U.S.-led coalition is not its current actions, but the fact that it took two and a half years to get here. Conspiracy theories about the current U.S. administration also run deep here, so change could be good, soldiers say.
On thing that is clear, is that it is not clear what President elect Donald Trump’s Iraq policy will look like. He has been highly critical of the Mosul offensive, even suggesting it was a campaign tool for Hilary Clinton during an October debate. He has also railed against leaders for being soft on terrorism and told Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Iraq “will find strong and deep support” under his presidency about 10 days after he was elected.
Less than a kilometer away from the base in Iraq, dust and smoke spray into the air as IS mortar fire comes crashing to the ground, aiming at, but missing, Iraqi Army positions. The noise of bullets and mortar fire coming from the base and aimed at IS-occupied buildings is constant.
“We don’t have any help and we don’t want any,” says a soldier named Kareem. “We are liberating Iraq.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week the Iraqi Army could, in theory, control Mosul before Trump takes office, but only if the pace of what appears to be an imminent victory speeds up.
But nearly three months into the Mosul offensive, fighting is only getting tougher, soldiers say.
Forces must move slowly, they tell us, as militants force civilians into large groups of ‘human shields’ into increasingly smaller territories. IS-occupied villages where civilians have all fled are laced with IED’s and held by sniper fire, car bombs and suicide bombers, adds Lt. Colonel Juma Annat above the hammering sound of outgoing fire.
“There are snipers everywhere and we don’t want to risk our men’s’ lives more than we have to,” he explains.
IS’s vast network of tunnels has also been found everywhere the militants have fled. As militants move back, the network is expected to pose a considerable new challenge, adds Annat, with worries they could be used not just to flee, but to launch attacks.
One soldier quietly notes that he hopes the coalition will provide technology to allow them to see into the tunnels.
“We may have to fight in the tunnels,” Annat continues. “The most important aim we have is to liberate the village 100 percent.”