Iraq’s Elite Soldiers Have Their Sights Set on Mosul

But if they hope to defeat the Islamic State, they’re going to have to learn to work with some new allies.

Peshmerga armored units spear head the Mosul Offensive in a long line of armor vehicles by liberating nine villages on October 17, 2016.
Peshmerga armored units spear head the Mosul Offensive in a long line of armor vehicles by liberating nine villages on October 17, 2016.

SHAHKOLI, Iraq — A convoy of black armored vehicles pulled off the highway and into a bombed-out village 10 miles from Mosul. A soldier atop an armored vehicle held a speaker blasting martial music, to the delight of several hundred comrades. The men wore fatigues and black T-shirts, many adorned with death’s head prints taken from American popular culture, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Marvel’s Punisher comic books, and the Sons of Anarchy television series. As the convoy passed over the rubble of the town, the men cheered to one another, flashing victory signs and shouting at a cluster of Western press.

“By God, we’ll soon be entering Mosul!”

“To Mosul!”

“Within a month, guaranteed!”

These soldiers, members of the Iraqi Army’s elite Golden Division, are expected to drive the Islamic State out of Mosul. Many members of the division have been battling the Islamic State for over two years across the country — and as the Islamic State has been slowly driven back, the Golden Division has been at the forefront of nearly every victory.

[See a slideshow from the front lines, as the Golden Division and Peshmerga advance on Mosul.]

Nearby, a force of adversaries-turned-allies was helping clear their way to Mosul. Kurdish fighters manned front-line positions overlooking a newly constructed earthen berm along the road. Earlier in the week, they had launched a successful operation to clear a stretch of highway from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. On Thursday, the Golden Division expects to leapfrog past the Kurdish positions and head toward Mosul.

The relationship between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga Kurdish fighters has long been marred by rivalry, as the two forces compete for authority in a band of disputed territory along the border of the autonomous Kurdistan region. But their shared enmity of the Islamic State has forced them to work together — and this week’s operation is their first major test of coordination since a recent military agreement signed between Baghdad and Erbil. So far, the early days of the joint operation appear to have experienced some hiccups, but suggest that the two sides are starting to develop a grudging mutual respect.

Commandos from the Kurdish Zerevani force, an elite military police force loyal to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, launched Monday’s operation at dawn with a pincer movement that saw two columns of troops on either side of the highway link up at the village of Shakholi.

South of the highway, a convoy followed dirt tracks through open fields on Monday, making an inviting target. “They only thing we were afraid of is the suicide bombs,” said 31-year-old Zerevani Pvt. Hajar Abdul Rahim Kalak. “Sure enough they came.”

He was bouncing in the back of an armored vehicle when the first vehicle raced at them. The bomb-laden vehicle was stopped short by a long burst of heavy machine-gun fire. “We stopped three of them this way by the time we reached our objective,” he said.

One of those vehicles, he was surprised to see, was a small Volkswagen Golf hatchback — an uncommon car to see in a dusty Iraqi village. The destroyed car’s carcass still lay in a twisted and charred heap by the side of the road. Its five occupants had been dismembered, their bodies strewn across the road, but by Wednesday had been plowed into an unmarked roadside grave.

Meanwhile to the highway’s north, Zerevani Maj. Gen. Bahjat Taymas was leading his convoy around a hilltop. The long caravan included mine-resistant Humvees, soft-skinned pickups mounted with machine guns, a contingent of Syrian Kurdish fighters, and two of Taymas’s sons, who are also Zerevani fighters. With so many vehicles traveling in single file along a dirt track, the procession slowed and came under heavy attack by the Islamic State. As mortars landed nearby, the men sang and smoked cigarettes.

The convoys linked up in Shakholi, but with the surrounding villages yet to be cleared, the Islamic State’s counterattacks continued. As bulldozers plowed dirt into berms, suicide bombers approached on foot. Sustained gunfire once again stopped the jihadist fighters short of their targets. By early afternoon, a calm had befallen the smoke-filled village. The Kurdish fighters sought out the shade of the buildings and ate from Styrofoam takeout cartons of rice, meat, and beans.

“We reached our objective here by 9 a.m.,” said Taymas, relaxing on a blanket on the concrete floor of an empty building. As his men installed a generator to establish a command post, Taymas had time to consider his future. “I’ve always said I’d keep doing this until I retire or get killed.”

After a long career as a fighter, the 53-year-old major general thought he might finally have a shot at retirement. “The agreement is now that the Golden Division and Iraqi Army will go forward to Mosul from here, and we will stay here.”

Such coordination between the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces on a major military operation is unprecedented. It has been made possible by an agreement between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, and has been hailed by officers of both the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army as the cause of a recent uptick in cooperation. Older members of the Peshmerga remember when they waged guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army, however, and mutual distrust and tensions remain.

“This is the first time the blood of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces are mixed,” Barzani told the press on Monday, speaking from a rear base. “We hope it’s a good start to create a bright future for both sides.”

Following Barzani’s address, though, the operation stalled. Golden Division vehicles stood ready but didn’t advance, the men eager and frustrated. By Wednesday afternoon, the Golden Division was still waiting to advance — but word had gotten out that the operation would restart on Thursday. It was unclear whether the delay was due to a breakdown in coordination between the Kurds and the Golden Division or simply a tactical pause to consolidate gains, construct new defensive berms, and clear IEDs from the retaken stretch of the highway.

At the nearby rear base, members of the Iraqi Army’s 91st Brigade were working hard to coordinate between the Peshmerga and the Golden Division. An ethnically Kurdish unit, the 91st brigade is uniquely positioned to synchronize the operation. Capt. Kamiran Ismail Ali, himself a Kurd, sketched maps in his notebook and talked constantly into his smartphone.

“We all speak Arabic but we have good contacts with the Peshmerga,” he said. “So we’ve been able to coordinate troop movements, logistics, and airstrikes during this offensive.”

Kamiran expressed awe-tinged admiration for the Golden Division, which he described as renegades. “They aren’t bound by normal military regulations, they wear whatever they want, and they really only do one thing. And that’s fight.”

On the same rear base, reserve Golden Division troops fretted about being held back. Sgt. Maj. Halim Fazelas had ordered his men to prepare anyway, and they stood outside washing their Humvees to kill time. The vehicles were old but freshly painted, with new bulletproof windows installed.

The 34-year-old has spent the last 11 years fighting with the Golden Division. Now he worries about potentially missing out on a final showdown with the Islamic State. “We’re always ready to go,” he said. “None of us came up from Baghdad to be on standby. If people are left behind they’ll be pissed off.”

Fifteen minutes down the road, the Golden Division fighters who had received their fighting orders were jubilant. As the sun set over Shakholi, the soldiers relaxed, smoking nargileh and playing soccer, confident that Thursday was their zero hour.

Abdel Salam Rozgeri, a retired Kurdish helicopter mechanic, and his Peshmerga son Mohamed watched the scene unfold. They were returning to their home in this village for the first time in over two years. Since fleeing the Islamic State advance, they had lived in exile in the Kurdish-controlled town of Kalak, just 16 miles down the road. Surveying the damage from Monday’s fighting, Rozgeri said two of his family’s three properties in the village had been destroyed. “But we’re very happy nonetheless,” he said. “There are no terrorists here any more. … We’re going to return, rebuild, and start a new life better than before.”

Then he handed his smartphone to his son, asking him to take a photograph as he locked the nearest Golden Division soldier into a vigorous handshake.

Photo credit: OSIE GREENWAY/Foreign Policy

Campbell MacDiarmid is an Erbil-based freelance journalist covering conflict, international law, and humanitarian issues. Twitter: @CampbellMacD

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