Industrial strength tunnels complicate Iraqi assault on Mosul
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 4, 2016
KERMLIS, Iraq — Islamic State fighters used an industrial mining machine to dig a maze of massive tunnels under this Christian village near Mosul as they prepared to face an onslaught by the Iraqi army.
The battle for Kermlis, fought by the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division during its drive toward Mosul last week, could be a taste of what’s to come during the struggle for Iraq’s second-largest city.
To capture the village, where it’s thought Alexander the Great defeated the Persian emperor Darius III in 331 B.C., Iraqi troops discovered a complex array of tunnels and bunkers that the enemy had two years to prepare.
The tunnels were reminiscent of the underground mazes used so effectively by the Viet Cong to move troops and shelter them against bombing and shelling by U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.
Destroying the subterranean networks from the air, especially in urban locations, is very difficult and risks causing massive civilian casualties because of the tonnage required to eliminate them.
During the battle for Kermlis smoke rose from the village as the Iraqi soldiers threw burning tires down holes to smoke out or asphyxiate the enemy.
By Wednesday, the fires were out and the town was quiet, although wary Christian militia members from the Nineveh Protection Unit remained armed and alert in case someone emerged from the ruins of blasted buildings.
The ground beneath Saint Barbara Church, on the side of a large hill near the entrance to town, contains a rabbit’s warren of subterranean passageways. The militia filled the largest hole there with furniture and boarded up another to make sure nobody ambushed them.
A tunnel on the edge of town has a ramp that would allow small vehicles to drive into it. It looks like it has collapsed although it’s unclear how.
The stench of something dead wafts from a nearby bunker but it would be dangerous to find out whether it’s man or beast. The risk of setting off a booby trap makes it foolish to go too far inside the caverns. Even crawling a short distance into the tunnels leaves visitors with black soot from burned rubber on their clothes and bodies.
The commander of some of the Iraqi Army troops in Kermlis, Col. Hussein Jubaya, said 200 to 400 Islamic State fighters had defended the town. Some were killed but most retreated, he said.
“We chased them all the way back to Mosul,” he said.
The gap in armaments between the Iraqi forces, equipped with Abrams tanks and supported by U.S. airpower and artillery, is clear from home-made weapons that the fleeing militants left on the battlefield at Kermlis. Their armored vehicles were actually Toyota and Jeep SUVs with bolt-on steel plates.
Iraqi tankers who captured a row of homes just outside the village found another massive tunnel along with the machine that the militants used to dig it. The car-sized, sled-mounted borer, was probably imported from Turkey, Jubaya said.
The tunnel’s entrance is hidden inside one of the houses and takes up most of one of the rooms.
One of the tankers, Staff Sgt. Alea Kazam, 35, perched on the edge of a deep hole in the floor shooting photos with his cellphone.
The tunnel leads to a farmhouse half a mile away and there’s another two-mile long tunnel leading from there toward Mosul, he said.
“They ran down this hole like giant mice,” he said of the fleeing extremists.