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A battle-damaged building in Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

A battle-damaged building in Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A battle-damaged building in Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

A battle-damaged building in Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

An Iraqi soldier photographs the entrance to a tunnel near Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

An Iraqi soldier photographs the entrance to a tunnel near Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

An SUV covered with bolt-on armored plates, pictured here on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, is an example of the homemade weapons that fleeing Islamic State militants abandoned on the battlefield at Kermlis.

An SUV covered with bolt-on armored plates, pictured here on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, is an example of the homemade weapons that fleeing Islamic State militants abandoned on the battlefield at Kermlis. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Iraqi soldiers pose on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, alongside a mining machine they captured from the Islamic State group near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul.

Iraqi soldiers pose on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, alongside a mining machine they captured from the Islamic State group near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

An Iraqi soldier sits inside an abandoned Islamic State SUV covered with bolt-on armored plates, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The bizarre vehicle is an example of the homemade weapons that fleeing Islamic State militants left on the battlefield at the village of Kermlis, near Mosul.

An Iraqi soldier sits inside an abandoned Islamic State SUV covered with bolt-on armored plates, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The bizarre vehicle is an example of the homemade weapons that fleeing Islamic State militants left on the battlefield at the village of Kermlis, near Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The interior of an abandoned Islamic State SUV covered with bolt-on armored plates, pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The bizarre vehicle is an example of the homemade weapons that fleeing Islamic State militants left on the battlefield at the village of Kermlis, near Mosul.

The interior of an abandoned Islamic State SUV covered with bolt-on armored plates, pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The bizarre vehicle is an example of the homemade weapons that fleeing Islamic State militants left on the battlefield at the village of Kermlis, near Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

An Iraqi soldier poses on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, with a home-made mortar captured from the Islamic State group near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul.

An Iraqi soldier poses on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, with a home-made mortar captured from the Islamic State group near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Iraqi soldiers investigate on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, a tunnel dug by the Islamic State group near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul.

Iraqi soldiers investigate on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, a tunnel dug by the Islamic State group near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Abrams tanks and a truck of the Iraqi army's 9th Armored Division parked at  the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

Abrams tanks and a truck of the Iraqi army's 9th Armored Division parked at the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Islamic State group dug a network of tunnel beneath the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The village is seen from the top of a hill behind the St. Barbara Church on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

The Islamic State group dug a network of tunnel beneath the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The village is seen from the top of a hill behind the St. Barbara Church on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

An abandoned Islamic State SUV with its front half clad in steel plates on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The strange vehicle is an example of the improvised weapons that Islamic State militants left on the battlefield at the village of Kermlis, near Mosul.

An abandoned Islamic State SUV with its front half clad in steel plates on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The strange vehicle is an example of the improvised weapons that Islamic State militants left on the battlefield at the village of Kermlis, near Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

An Iraqi soldier poses, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, with a mining machine captured from the Islamic State group near Kermlis, east of the city of Mosul.

An Iraqi soldier poses, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, with a mining machine captured from the Islamic State group near Kermlis, east of the city of Mosul. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Col. Husien Jubaya commands Iraqi troops guarding the entrance to a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

Col. Husien Jubaya commands Iraqi troops guarding the entrance to a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants near the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A member of an Iraqi Christian militia peers into a bunker dug by the Islamic State fighters in Kermlis, a village east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

A member of an Iraqi Christian militia peers into a bunker dug by the Islamic State fighters in Kermlis, a village east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The entrance to a tunnel dug by the Islamic State group in the village of Kermlis, east of Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, was blocked with discarded furniture on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

The entrance to a tunnel dug by the Islamic State group in the village of Kermlis, east of Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, was blocked with discarded furniture on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

A Christian militia member guards St. Barbara Church in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

A Christian militia member guards St. Barbara Church in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Islamic State group has damaged art at St. Barbara Church in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, seen here on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

The Islamic State group has damaged art at St. Barbara Church in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, seen here on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

The Islamic State group has damaged art at St. Barbara Church in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, seen here on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

The Islamic State group has damaged art at St. Barbara Church in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, seen here on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Iraqi soldiers near the entrance to a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

Iraqi soldiers near the entrance to a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Christian militiamen patrol Kermlis, a village east of the city of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

Christian militiamen patrol Kermlis, a village east of the city of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

Entrance of a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

Entrance of a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants in the village of Kermlis, east of Mosul, Iraq, on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

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.

robson.seth@stripes.com

Twitter: @SethRobson1

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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