BASHIQA, IRAQ - While there are no signs that the Islamic State group’s forces are falling apart in northern Iraq under the pressure of the offensive on Mosul, the militants’ last major urban stronghold in Iraq, commanders of both Kurdish and Iraqi military units have told VOA they see cracks emerging in jihadist discipline, indicating the resolve of some militants is weakening.
The picture is not totally uniform, according to the commanders in charge of the Iraqi-Kurdish assault. Some extremists are withdrawing from the fight unilaterally, they say, not under orders from their superiors to do so. This contrasts with other jihadist withdrawals that are clearly tactical.
“It often depends on the determination of the local IS emir,” says Kurdish General Nuraddin Tatarkhan, who commands the seventh peshmerga division, which has encircled the town of Bashiqa, 24 kilometers from Mosul.
“It really depends, also, on individual fighters,” Tatarkhan said. There is no widespread panic among jihadists, he adds, but suggests their resistance will crumble in the face of the much larger forces ranged against them.
Militants’ staged withdrawals
Iraqi and Kurdish commanders have noticed a pattern developing across all fronts in northern Iraq: The first village on a front line is the hardest to recapture from the jihadists, with the second succumbing more easily.
That was seen last week in Mosul when IS resistance was fierce for four days in the eastern district of Gogjali, the first neighborhood inside the city limits overrun by soldiers from Iraq’s elite Golden Division. Then Friday Iraqi soldiers forced their way into the adjacent district of Samaha much more quickly than they had expected, encountering lighter resistance than they had faced all week in Gogjali.
This pattern is being dictated by top IS commanders, the top ranks of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces believe. They add, though, that other Islamic State withdrawals appear to be the result of decisions taken by local emirs or, in some cases, by individual fighters from small units where discipline has collapsed. IS resolve seems to deteriorate more quickly when no foreign members of the terror group are present.
Fierce resistance from Chechens, Kazakhs
“Resistance is much fiercer when there are Chechens, Kazakhs or Central Asians” present among the fighters, Tatarkhan says.
Islamic State’s leader and self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke nearly a yearlong silence last week with a 31-minute audio recording urging his forces to remain firm in the face of the three-week-long offensive on Mosul, the city where he announced to the world that his caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq had been established.
“Know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame,” Baghdadi said. “This war is yours. Turn the dark night of the infidels into day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.”
The audio recording prompted some Western analysts to speculate that Baghdadi might be trying to stave off his forces’ collapse. U.S. officials say they see no evidence of panic among the jihadists, but the picture on the ground appears more mixed and confused.
Civilians tell of their escape
Displaced civilians have confirmed to VOA that not all IS fighters are standing their ground, or appear to be in a rush to embrace “martyrdom” on the battlefield.
“Only two Daesh fighters remained in the village. They said to us, ‘You can go,’ and everyone ran,” 33-year-old Khaleel said.
Civilians in his village, Abu Jerbua, did not hesitate, Khaleel said. They seized the moment and dashed toward government lines as fast as they could.
In an interview later in the packed Khazir Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he and his family have found refuge, Khaleel described conditions in his village just before he left: “There were heavy airstrikes and a lot of militants were killed. Others just fled.”
“Most of the militants were Iraqis, with some Syrians,” he said. “The Iraqis were not from our area, they were strangers from Anbar [province], mainly.”
Casualties from airstrikes
Abu Jerbua, just south of Bashiqa, had a population of about 500 people before fighting began, but there have been civilian casualties.
“Two whole families died when their houses collapsed on them after being hit in the airstrikes,” Khaleel said.
As for Mosul itself, there are a lot of foreign, non-Iraqi fighters there, he added, “I have seen them with my own eyes.”
His wife gave birth in a hospital in Mosul a few months ago, Khaleel said, and there was a foreign woman who he thinks was European in the neighboring bed, also giving birth.
In contrast to the flight by IS militants from Abu Jerbua, extremists in other villages appear to be much more disciplined and organized, rounding up men and boys and herding them to Mosul.
But in the village of Qaryat Bir Hallan, 20 kilometers east of Mosul, Sarheed, a villager, says he “saw fear in the faces of Daesh fighters.”
Militants panicked under fire
Sitting in a tent in the Khazir camp with his family as a sandstorm darkened the sky outside, the 42-year-old school janitor said he tried to keep his teenage sons in their home at all times during the past two years, out of fear that IS would try to recruit them as “cubs of the caliphate.”
“When the offensive started, the militants in our village were afraid,” Sarheed said. “On the second day there was a lot of disorder and they seemed to be panicking, running all over the place.”
As Sarheed described the chaos, his 61-year-old father, an Iraqi army combat veteran from the Iran-Iraq war who lost his leg in 2006, raised his hands to heaven.
Elsewhere on the front lines, Iraqi and peshmerga fighters say they are encountering total commitment from the IS militants.
“We have not captured any Daesh fighters,” said one peshmerga commander. “How can you capture militants who want to die? Many of them have suicide vests on.”
Even when a neighborhood or village is seized from IS, Iraqi and peshmerga forces are often surprised by militants infiltrating back in, especially at night, to launch hit-and-run attacks.
IS militants evaded government forces and sneaked back into Qayyarah to mount just such a raid; 13 of the extremists were killed, the Iraqis said.