Wary Iraqis return to village where Navy SEAL, peshmerga ‘martyrs’ were slain

Salim Petrus Jeju, 74, is pictured in his home in the Iraqi village of Batnaya on March 24, 2017. Jeju lived in the home during Islamic State's occupation of the village north of Mosul and said he hoped the terrorist group would be destroyed.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 5, 2017

TELESKOF, Iraq — A massive Islamic State assault here a year ago led to a fierce firefight and the death of a Navy SEAL, one of just five U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since the U.S. launched military operations against ISIS in August 2014.

Despite the resulting devastation in this town on what was once the edge of ISIS’s territory in northern Iraq, life has begun to return to the largely Christian region less than 20 miles north of Mosul as an Iraqi-led offensive to retake the country’s second-largest city reaches its final stages.

The fighting last year has left its mark, both emotionally and physically. Not far outsde the village, at a checkpoint near a main highway intersection, a new three-sided billboard serves as a memorial to Kurdish peshmerga killed battling ISIS.

In the town, some blocks remain scarred by blasts that reduced buildings to rubble and left at least one home half-standing, its insides exposed. Even some of the dead rest uneasily, their crypts in a nearby cemetery broken open by ISIS vandals.

Still, many families have returned to reclaim lives the militants disrupted when they swept through northern Iraq roughly three years ago. The broken doors and shattered windows of their homes have been repaired with the help of a local church, and a large cross has been erected defiantly on a hillside facing Mosul on the town’s southern reaches.

“It’s time to come home,” said returning resident Adil Slewa, who serves with the peshmerga special operations forces, during a walk through town with his three young daughters.

Some areas liberated from ISIS lack basic utility services, but Teleskof’s electricity is flowing for about 12 hours a day, Slewa said. Running water is also available, though that is less reliable.

Commerce has begun to return, if slowly. Fadi Youna, who returned with his new wife and his mother to their pale purple home in early March, was selling propane canisters later that month. He said a couple of families return daily; he felt the town’s future would depend on a full return.

A few shops have opened in the town’s center, too, offering mainly dry goods, snack foods and household supplies.

“We were in the dark, and now we’re coming into the light again,” said Waad Akram,  running a hardware shop and doing brisk business among the returning families.

Thousands of residents, mainly Chaldean Catholics, fled the village ahead of an ISIS advance in August 2014. Kurdish peshmerga forces soon retook the area, but few residents returned because the front lines were on the town’s southern edge.

Early last May, the militants launched a surprise attack using car bombs, Humvees and bulldozers to overrun Kurdish defenses. The assault caught the security forces, including a U.S.-trained Christian militia, off guard.

Navy SEAL Charlie Keating IV, 31, posthumously promoted to chief petty officer, was fatally wounded during the fighting. For his actions in helping security forces repel an earlier assault, he was also awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat. It was upgraded to a Navy Cross earlier this year.

Members of the Christian militia known as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, which received training from U.S. forces and American civilians at a camp a few miles north of Teleskof, said Keating’s final battle was fierce and also claimed the lives of 10 peshmerga.

U.S. warplanes — including F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, B-52 bombers, A-10 close air support aircraft and drones — launched 31 airstrikes that destroyed truck bombs, bulldozers and other vehicles. Some 60 ISIS fighters were killed before they withdrew.

After the Iraqi-led campaign to retake Mosul began in October, the peshmerga pushed the defensive lines farther south of the village.

Cheleng Mohammed Hassan, a Kurdish commander, said he had worked closely with U.S. troops and had lost many friends in the ISIS fight. Though the militants had since been cleared from areas in and around east Mosul, his men — trained by the U.S-led coalition — remained vigilant against potential sleeper cells or other attacks, he said.

As wary residents continue to return to the area in hopes that it is now secure, some are finding little reason to stay.

Manhel Mat Yousef, a Teleskof resident, found his home turned to a pile of concrete fragments and said he couldn’t afford to rebuild. Across the street, ISIS vandals had turned some graves to rubble in a cemetery where Yousef’s parents and brother — killed in Mosul when he was shot helping victims of a suicide bombing — were buried, he said.

“There’s nothing left here to live for.”

Twitter: @chadgarland

This story has been updated from its original version.

Pictured here on March 24, 2017, a memorial near the Iraqi village of Alqosh honors the martyrs of the Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, who died near here while battling Islamic State militants. ISIS stormed the nearby city of Teleskof in May 2016, killing a U.S. Navy SEAL who was helping to evacuate U.S. advisers from the area.

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