Destruction, sounds of battle attest to US support for Iraqi offensive on Mosul

''Rocket City'' on Qayara Airfield West in northern Iraq, pictured here on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, houses U.S. HIMARS rocket launchers that are providing support fire during the battle to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State group.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 31, 2016

QAYARA AIRFIELD WEST, Iraq — The destruction wrought by heavy artillery is evident along the road to this air base — a key staging area for U.S. forces offering fire support to Iraqi troops pressing their offensive toward Mosul.

A wrecked factory allegedly used to manufacture bombs is one of many structures flattened either by heavy artillery or air power from the U.S. or other members of the international coalition.

Here at Qayara Airfield West, the thud of outgoing fire from American M109 Paladins and CAESAR howitzers manned by French troops stationed at the base is punctuated by the occasional whoosh of rockets launched by a U.S. Army HIMARS (High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System).

The multiple-launch rocket systems have unleashed more than 200 rounds in support of Iraqi ground forces since the weapons started shooting from this area 10 weeks ago, first at a nearby base and then here.

Two HIMARS, each with six rocket tubes, were initially at Fire Base Bell, a small outpost near Makhmour, where a Marine was killed by incoming fire in March. The HIMARS were moved to Qayara in October, after the base — which had been heavily damaged by Islamic State militants — was recaptured by Iraqi troops and refurbished by U.S. engineers.

The GPS-guided HIMARS rockets, the longest-range artillery fielded by U.S. forces in Iraq, are accurate to within five square meters and can launch in weather that makes airstrikes difficult such as dust or thunder storms.

On Saturday, the HIMARS crews at Qayara targeted a suspected car bomb and a building believed to be full of enemy fighters, military officials said.

The unit’s launchers are located on a corner of the base known as “Rocket City.”

Crew members from the 18th Field Artillery Brigade out of Ft. Bragg, N.C. receive target coordinates from a command post.

When the artillery fires, the U.S. troops watch glowing rounds blast over the concrete T-barriers that surround their Spartan camp or see the white trails left by the rockets as they streak skyward. They don’t see the destruction that follows.

But Iraqi civilians in recently liberated villages have seen plenty of it.

Lwae Mohammad, 31, a former police officer, lives across the street from the wrecked bomb factory near Qayara.

It was destroyed after a local informant told the Iraqi government that the terrorists were operating there, he said.

The remains of a corpse locals believe is an Islamic State bombmaker, rots beside what’s left of the building. Enemy dead don’t get buried here. “We’re leaving them for the dogs,” said an angry local, who asked not to be named in case the militants retaliate against relatives.

Mohammad warns people to stay away from the structure, which is full of compressed gas canisters.

Dozens of children play in a nearby neighborhood, running to the roadside to give the “V” for victory sign to passing convoys of Iraqi troops who sing and, occasionally, fire weapons into the air as they head for the front line.

Mohammad said he’s happy that the Islamic State is gone from his neighborhood but they didn’t leave alone. The retreating militants, he said, took one of his brothers with them back to Mosul, where the Islamic State is believed to be using civilians as human shields. “We don’t know what happened to him.”

Twitter: @SethRobson1

Lwae Mohammad, 31, a former Iraqi police officer, stands beside a wrecked building he says the Islamic State used to manufacture bombs. The building, pictured here on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, is near Qayara, Iraq.