Wisam al-Zubaidi is a member of one of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism troops. But right now he isn’t fighting, he is in a Baghdad hospital nursing a bullet wound in his foot. At a battle east of Mosul, he and his battalion were ambushed by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which Iraqi forces are currently fighting in northern Iraq. Some of his comrades were killed, others injured and some are still fighting; al-Zubaidi, a member of the elite troops that often fight their way forward into battle before other military units, is still telephoning his colleagues to find out what’s going on.
“I am not scared of being killed,” al-Zubaidi told NIQASH. “I am always thinking of my brothers-in-arms and worrying for them actually. Just a few hours ago, we were drinking tea and talking about our loved ones and out families. I lost one of these friends. He was just a few meters away from me and when they brought us to Baghdad by helicopter, I was next to his dead body the whole way. It was very sad.”
The problem for us is that the IS group doesn’t care about the civilians’ lives. Their aim is to destroy us at any price.
His unit had been ordered to advance into the Hay al-Mualimeen area early in the morning. But just as they were starting to move, a booby-trapped car exploded next to one of the unit’s Hummers and heavy shooting began: They had been ambushed.
“We are fighting from one house to the next,” al-Zubaidi said. “The battle has become urban warfare now.”
While other anti-extremist forces fight outside the city of Mosul, which the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group has controlled for over two years now, the counter-terrorism corps are the only fighters who have been able to penetrate very far into the city itself. They are in control of several urban neighbourhoods but are only able to hold onto them with great difficulty.
The Iraqi army currently controls around ten neighbourhoods in the east of Mosul. But the city has about 60 neighbourhoods in total so it’s a small percentage.
The anti-terrorism forces were established in 2003, as part of a specially trained corps within the Iraqi army. When the Iraqi army crumbled in the face of the IS group’s attacks in June 2014, due to factors such as corruption within the ranks, lack of training and psychological pressure from the enemy, the counter-terrorism troops were the only ones that maintained their cohesion.
The counter-terrorism forces have come to play an important part in the current fighting and generally have a good reputation. Al-Zubaidi has already taken part in many other battles in Iraq, including in Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah. But the fighting in Mosul is the most difficult, al-Zubaidi confirms.
“It is a war being fought while there are thousands of innocent people around. There are shooters everywhere yet at the same time we have old women and children coming up to us,” al-Zubaidi says. “It’s incredibly difficult.”
“Fighting inside the residential areas is tough,” confirms a captain in the counter-terrorism forces, Ahmad al-Obaidi. “We have three main tasks there: protect innocent civilians, liberate the territory and protect ourselves from IS attacks. The problem for us is that the IS group doesn’t care about the civilians’ lives. Their aim is to destroy us at any price.”
“Protecting one civilian is more important than killing ten extremists – this is what my commander told me,” al-Obaidi quotes his orders. “So we are moving very slowly, so as not to harm civilians, but this also means we are losing men daily.”
A few days ago al-Obeidi’s unit was fighting in the Qadisiyah area of Mosul when they were shelled by IS fighters. His unit ended up taking civilians injured in the shelling out of the area; he says the extremists were bombing the area with no regard at all for non-combatants.
In Mosul, “every road is a battlefront,” al-Obeidi told NIQASH. “In some places, we are not more than 50 meters away from the extremists. We use bulldozers to build barricades at the end of each street, then we fight behind them. Then we remove them and build new ones on the next street,” he explained the painstaking process to push the IS group out of one of Iraq’s largest cities.
The counter-terrorism forces are still worried about members of the IS group, or IS loyalists, among the civilians, who might attack them. Many of the civilian males still haven’t shaved off the long beards they were all forced to grow because of the IS group’s religious rules and the security forces get worried that some of these men may actually be members of the IS group, or loyal to them.
The other big problem is the number of booby trapped vehicles. These are exploded once the anti-extremist troops are on a street. The explosion leaves them trapped on the street, which is blocked at both ends, for hours, until they can get support from other troops.
In the Zohour neighbourhood of Mosul, which is next to Qadisiyah, another soldier, Qusay Salam, told NIQASH about what happens in the parts of Mosul that the IS group has been pushed out of.
His unit had spent three days fighting to control the neighbourhood and when they were finally certain that the IS fighters were gone, and that booby traps had been cleared, they built a barricade made of rubble and cars at one end of the street. This meant that cars driven by suicide bombers wouldn’t be able to attack them.
After several hours, they could hear people congregating on the other side of barricade: Men, women and children were running toward the soldiers, looking frightened to death, he says.
Salam says this is what makes the fighting in Mosul so difficult too. It is hard for the anti-extremist forces to get accurate information as to where the IS fighters are, at any given time. They try and collect information from the civilians about where the IS fighters might be hiding. “In some cases, we get valuable information,” Salam says. “In other cases, they won’t tell us anything because they are afraid that the IS group will return and kill them for collaborating with the security forces.”
On one of the days in this neighbourhood, Salam says his commander knocked at the door of one of the houses.
“A white flag came out of the window and a man started shouting,” Salam recounts. “He was calling out: We are innocent people. Please, I have children.”
When the home owner was reassured that it was the Iraqi army outside his home, he opened the door, saluted them and started to cry.
“He told us these were his tears of happiness,” Salam says. “His wife prepared tea for us and we spent the night in his home. We left at dawn and said goodbye to the family. He told us: May God bless you and protect you. And he begged us to save their lives and expel the criminals from his city.”