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Step by step, peshmerga turn the screw on ISIL

Kurdish fighters take mortar fire, ambushes and suicide bombers in their stride as they advance across Nineveh plains.
Kurdish peshmerga forces begin their advance towards the ISIL-held town of Bashiqa near the village of Narawan in northern Iraq on October 20, 2016. Florian Neuhof for The National
Kurdish peshmerga forces begin their advance towards the ISIL-held town of Bashiqa near the village of Narawan in northern Iraq on October 20, 2016. Florian Neuhof for The National

Nawaran, Iraq // On the outskirts of the small hamlet of Nawaran, the rising sun reveals to the peshmerga the villages that dot the lush plain stretching to the horizon. They will be the scene of fighting for the day as the Kurds launch their push towards Mosul as part of the campaign to liberate the ISIL-held city.

Already, diggers have removed the berms and trenches that barred the road into the Nineveh plains, and a long line of vehicles stand ready to thrust beyond the earthen ramparts. Here at Nawaran, the Kurds are about launch one of a series of coordinated attacks aimed at collapsing ISIL’s front north of Mosul.

To achieve this, the peshmerga will first encircle and then crush ISIL’s resistance in the town of Bashiqa, and drive the insurgents from the Christian town of Telskuf to the west. The territories they seize will fall to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), its officials say, as part of a deal made with Baghdad to secure Kurdish help in the Mosul campaign. It will be one of their final contributions in the war against ISIL – the peshmerga will stop short of Mosul and allow the Iraqi army to move through their lines and into the city.

The belief that they are fighting for Kurdistan fires the patriotism of the men.

“All of the lands that we will liberate will be part of Kurdistan. Its already been agreed,” says a peshmerga sergeant named Naser.

Ahead of the operation, there is calm. Peshmerga stand in groups by the side of the road, or sleep in their vehicles. Some have lit fires against the autumn chill, others eat breakfast that is being handed out in plastic bags from the back of a truck. The mood is relaxed, and few of the fighters show nervousness about the impending battle.

As daylight grows, artillery begins to fire into Narawan. Across the plains, air strikes by anti-ISIL coalition warplanes send clouds of white smoke into the sky. Once the barrage subsides, the first column of armoured vehicles slowly heads down the road, spraying machine-gun fire at Nawaran as they pass the village to head south.

Hidden from sight, ISIL begins its defence. Mortar rounds land near the Kurdish lines and along the road, the thud of their explosions mixing with the boom of artillery that increases its fire rate in response. Suddenly, the crackle of automatic fire adds to the din. The fighters in a column of armoured cars readying for departure have realised that an ISIL drone is circling above them and open fire.

The peshmerga gathered around the breach to watch their comrades pull out have spotted a second drone and blast away at the morning sky. The tiny aircraft is hit and spirals to earth as the peshmerga loudly cheer their marksmanship. ISIL fighters use these drones, which are not much more than model aircraft, to direct their fire, and shooting them down decreases the risk of being hit by a mortar round.

As they drive deeper into ISIL territory, the attack columns begin to get entangled in firefights. In the villages, small groups of insurgents lie in wait and spring ambushes as the Kurds draw close. The fertile farmland is densely populated and the large number of villages lying close to each other allow the insurgents to fire on the passing column from several directions. Roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses add to the obstacles that slow the Kurdish advance.

The extremists also deploy their most effective weapon, suicide car bombers. One of them manages to drive into a Kurdish attack group, setting off a stream of ambulances heading back to the breach.

All through the afternoon, ambulances continue to bring in the wounded. The peshmerga crowd around each vehicle that pulls in and look on in concern as their stricken comrades are transferred to other ambulances that take them to a nearby hospital. It is becoming clear that the final battle against their fanatical enemy will be hard won.

As the day draws to an end, hundreds of peshmerga that have marched beyond the ramparts take up new positions a few kilometres farther south. Diggers have hastily laid fresh trenches and thrown up berms to provide some protection in the open terrain, but the pensive expressions on the face of the peshmerga holding the new line indicate that danger lurks in the approaching night. ISIL is known to use the darkness to sneak up in surprise attacks.

But the peshmerga refuse to be downbeat, and those who return from the fighting put on a brave face when asked about the day’s battles.

“Everything is fine. The fighting was easy,” says one as he jumps from his pickup truck and beats the dust from his trousers.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: October 21, 2016 04:00 AM

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