Tale of 2 Wars: 1 for Iraqis, another for Americans
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 26, 2016
BARTELLA, Iraq — The battle to push Islamic State militants out of Mosul, their last remaining stronghold in Iraq, could be described as a tale of two wars when viewed from the differing perspectives of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
And that is as it should be, according to U.S. officials from whom “it’s an Iraqi fight,” is a common refrain.
While some U.S. special operations forces are working directly with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga troops at the frontlines, most American personnel are at outposts farther back.
A razorwire-ringed compound, where a task force of 101st Airborne Division soldiers is helping Iraqi army and peshmerga fighters to coordinate their attacks, appeared relatively secure Tuesday. The most exciting thing happening there was a black-and-white video feed from unmanned aircraft beamed to a tent serving as a Joint Operations Center for the U.S., Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Outside, a few Americans stood next to a couple of mortars while combat engineer Pfc. Neesy Sanders, 29, of Columbus, Miss., scanned the horizon over her machinegun from behind a sandbag. Nearby, Pfc. Juan Flores, 26, of Ontario, Calif., sat on a camp chair manning a radio while Spc. Jordan Bryan, 21, of Milwaukee, and some other soldiers opted for the shade of armored vehicles.
But in the town of Bartella, which Iraqi elite forces liberated from the Islamic State group on Saturday, the contrast was stark.
The road into Bartella, a Christian town that was liberated on Saturday, is strewn with shell casings and there are numerous craters where improvised explosive devices detonated. Dozens of the makeshift bombs and jerry cans full of home-made explosives neutralized by the advancing forces have been dumped on the side of the road.
Artillery thudded in the distance and jets screamed overhead.
There’s not much left of some of Bartella’s buildings but most are still standing and some are housing the Iraqi troops as they wait to push forward again.
“The Americans were helpful from the air,” said Col. Falah Alabaidi, commander of the so-called Golden Division soldiers in the town, the special operations troops. The airstrikes “target car bombs and groups of fighters.”
He stood in a church courtyard in front of a headless statue. To reach the church, the Golden Division cleared hundreds of roadside bombs, survived 17 car bombs and killed 120 enemy fighters, he said.
A captured Katyusha rocket launcher sits in the cemetery behind the church. The Islamic State fighters have used some of the headstones there for target practice. They broke into a tomb and pulled the lid off a coffin belonging to someone named Hanna Eleas Hanoosh, who died in 1990, aged 65, according to an inscription. Alabaidi said the militants desecrate the tombs because they object to Christian burial practices.
Alabaidi is a Muslim but said it’s his duty to protect all Iraqis, whatever their religion. The Golden Division, formed with the help of U.S. Special Forces in 2004, has every religious group in Iraq in its ranks, he said.
“The division’s commander is Kurdish. This guy is a Sunni and this guy is a Shiite,” he said, pointing to soldiers on his left and right.
Bartella is free of militants but there’s still a sniper nearby who makes travel down one road out of town unsafe.
Getting to newly freed villages east of Mosul involves driving over a one-lane bridge that peshmerga built for the offensive. The Islamic State group had destroyed the original two-lane bridge as they retreated.
In one neighborhood the soldiers have set up artillery pieces and mobile rocket launchers. In another a tank sits in front of somebody’s house while black Golden Division Humvees, trucks and armored personnel carriers are parked nearby.
In the nearby village of Karamlis there appeared to be fighting going on Wednesday with a plume of black smoke rising and Iraqi troops were quick to fire shots to warn off our approaching vehicle.
One of the division’s soldiers in Bartella, Sgt. Ahmed Faisal, 25, a Sunni from Baghdad, said he joined up six years ago and fought in the battles to push the Islamic State group out of Ramadi and Fallujah before the Mosul operation.
Since the Mosul operation started, Faisal said, he’s been in several firefights with the enemy and all have been exciting.
“We are taking back these areas and giving them back to the Christians,” he said.
In fields near Bartella shepherds are rounding up sheep to be returned to owners who fled the Islamic State group.
The sheep are herded to a checkpoint where the owners gather clutching papers proving ownership of the animals.
One of the men is Ahmed Eyob, 39, a Sunni Muslim who fled the nearby Bashika village when the Islamic State group arrived two years ago. Eyob’s relatives stayed behind and looked after his flock of 20 sheep, he said.
“I love them all equally,” he said of the sheep but added that he’d kill one and have a party to celebrate their return.