US soldiers build bonds with Iraqis near Mosul front
BARTELLA, Iraq — A group of U.S. soldiers is providing more than support for Iraqi troops fighting to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group. They’re living and working closely with the Iraqis, building bonds that strengthen their joint mission.
U.S. military officials frequently point out that the Mosul campaign, which resumed Thursday after a two-week lull, is Iraqi-led. That often means U.S. servicemembers are acting in an advisory role far from the front lines, insulated on bases with blast walls, concertina wire and guard towers.
But the soldiers of Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment are living in cramped quarters in a safe house here, less than 12 miles from the forward line of troops. They share a muddy compound with soldiers of the Iraqi army’s elite Golden Division, one of the fiercest fighting and hardest-hit units in the fight for the country’s second-largest city.
The soldiers’ first mission is force security at the forward base, known as a tactical assembly area. But the company, part of the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, is also advising local police in the town, which was liberated from Islamic State fighters some two months ago but hasn’t yet been cleared of all booby traps.
Conditions are austere compared to life at an established base about two hours away in Irbil, where amenities include several dining facilities and internet access. Many at the tactical base spent a few weeks there but say this is where they’d rather be.
“I feel like we’re doing good and we’re helping over here,” said Staff Sgt. Jamie Paddock of Anoka, Minn. “That’s one of the reasons I joined the Army.”
In the past several months, they’ve had a taste of life at various points along the way from Kuwait to Baghdad to Irbil and, since the current offensive began 10 weeks ago, closer to Mosul as Iraqi forces pushed militants from outlying areas and advanced toward the city’s center.
Though they’re closer to the battle, the American soldiers’ role here is different from what Staff Sgt. Kyle Fernandez recalls from his deployment to Iraq in 2008.
“Back then, we were the ones that were in the front,” the Scranton, Pa.-native said. “It’s amazing to see how they (the Iraqis) have grown.”
In a sign of the Iraqi forces’ growing self-sufficiency, the police in Bartella have started relying on Iraqi bomb-disposal teams instead of those of their allies, said company commander Capt. Jeremy White of Morgantown, W.V.
“It’s by no means an extremely safe place yet,” White said of the town, which he said police methodically patrol and clear of dangers with the help of Apache Company’s analysis and advice.
When his men are not on a guard shift, patrolling or conducting reconnaissance — as they were recently, scouting drop zones east of Mosul — they sleep on narrow bunks set up in a hallway or work out in a “gym” of rowing machines, a half-dozen kettle bells and a pull-up bar behind the house. On a recent visit, a small LCD projector was showing a movie on a bare wall in a common area.
The adjacent living room served as a pantry, half-filled with cases of water bottles and Meals, Ready to Eat. Atop the boxes of MREs was a tiny Christmas tree.
“The first few months (of the deployment), we got very familiar with the case A MRE,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Bailey of Holbrook, Mass., referring to a standard 12-menu selection of the military’s operational rations.
But the troops have been bettering their position since arriving here in early November, said Bailey, the company first sergeant. They have found ways to get fresh food, and a pair of charcoal grills have allowed them to enjoy steaks on several occasions — a “huge morale boost,” he said.
They are also bonding with Iraqis, who often eat with them and bring them rice — lots of rice — Bailey said. Each morning, the local forces pass a stack of fresh-baked bread over a garden wall to the Americans, who pass back candy or other supplies that come in care packages from home.
“We’ve kind of built a neighborhood here,” said Bailey, in a room where troops keep vigil over the block of the town the coalition compound occupies using a variety of high-tech tools.
The sharing of bread is a symbol of the Iraqis’ openness to U.S. assistance, he said. First deployed to Iraq in 2003 where he helped secure Mosul and Tel Afar, Bailey is here for his fifth time and has seen public sentiment toward U.S. troops swell and ebb over time. He recalled “trying to build rapport out of the window of a vehicle” in Iraq in 2005, but he said it’s much easier to build trust the way they are now, as partners.
Such bonds pay dividends. White said Apache Company was able to “rekindle” its advising relationship with the 75th Iraqi Brigade, a unit it had trained and advised in preparation for the Mosul offensive months ago at Camp Taji, near Baghdad, and which recently began working with Iraqi special forces and police near Bartella.
In another sign of a deepening trust and mutual confidence, the U.S. soldiers were invited to Christmas Eve mass in town. The service was guarded entirely by the Iraqis, and the civilian parish’s closing prayers thanked Iraqi forces for liberating the town while a dozen of the Americans stood in back.
“We were just a footnote,” White said.