BAZWAYA, Iraq — The bullets zipped over the earthen barricade blocking the road to Mosul, prompting an instant response from the black-clad soldiers who had been milling around their Humvees at the edge of Bazwaya. Heavy machine-guns opened up in their turrets, and automatic fire crackled from the rooftops—another supposedly secured village had turned hot in the blink of an eye.
Elite counterterrorism forces announced they had wrested control of the Bazwaya from ISIS on Monday, but some of the jihadi defenders had remained hidden in tunnels burrowed underneath the village, and emerged to spray fire on the Iraqi positions from a row of houses lining the main road.
The insurgents’ refusal to give up on Bazwaya reflects the importance of the place. Only two kilometers to the east of the city limits, the nondescript village is now the gateway to Mosul.
It is from here that the counterterrorism forces known as the Golden Division on Tuesday launched their attack on the industrial zone of Gogjali, the first breach of the city’s defenses since the operation to expel ISIS from Mosul began two weeks ago.
The elite fighters took Gogjali that day, but paused Wednesday as poor weather grounded coalition air support.
“Today we will not advance any further, and concentrate on clearing the buildings in Gogjali instead. The advance will continue in one or two days,” 1st Lt. Mahmoud, who took part in the fighting, told The Daily Beast.
Wearing their trademark black combat fatigues and driving black armored cars, the soldiers of the U.S.-trained Golden Division have spearheaded the fightback against ISIS for the past two years, scoring notable victories against the jihadis in Ramadi, Hit, and Fallujah as they rolled back the self-proclaimed caliphate.
“We started fighting Daesh [ISIS] in Beiji and we haven’t stopped since,” said Ahmed Majid, one of the soldiers holding Bazwaya.
At Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the Golden Division has been the tip of the spear once again.
Majid’s battalion, Iraq Special Operations Forces 3, swiftly took the small Christian town of Bartella, and from there beat a narrow corridor straight toward the metropolis where hundreds of thousands of people still live. It secured the village of Bazwaya on Monday, pushing into the industrial zone of Gogjali on the outskirts a day later.
By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Gogjali was in the hands of ISOF 3, according to an officer who had returned from the zone.
The fighting had been intense. The Golden Division had sent in 23 Humvees and one Abrams tank to break into the city limits, according to Daher Mahmoud, a soldier who had taken part in the fighting. They had to repel two suicide truck bombs and were in constant danger of roadside bombs as they encountered up to 50 insurgents, said Mahmoud.
“We are facing Daesh’s strategy of launching suicide cars and planting bombs,” the officer said. Unshaven, weighed down by ammunition clips for his M4 rifle, and with a knife tucked into his combat vest, he embodied the grit and swagger of the Golden Division.
“Each of our men is worth a thousand soldiers,” he said, batting away a question on how many men from his unit had entered Gogjali, before climbing into his Humvee to drive back into the industrial zone.
The soldiers fighting their way into Mosul on Tuesday did not have to wait long until they were confronted with the insurgents’ desperate defensive tactics.
ISIS had tried to stall the advance from Bazwaya as soon as the day broke, launching an explosives-packed pickup truck into Iraqi positions as the special forces lined up their Humvees for the attack. Hit by machine-gun fire and a rocket-propelled grenade, the driver detonated his deadly cargo, sending the truck flying through the air.
The soldiers later added the charred remains of the vehicle to the earthen roadblock piled up to protect against further attacks, and dumped the body of the driver next to it. When bullets crossed paths above the berm a few hours later, a leg stuck out from the shallow grave.
As the unexpected firefight raged in Bazwaya, it was accompanied by explosions from nearby Gogjali that echoed across the sandy plains, mixing in with the gunfire ringing out across the street. Occasionally, a mortar round landed close by, its impact hurling rock and tarmac at the troops.
The contest was decided when three Humvees were called back from Gogjali to Bazwaya to engage the jihadis at close quarters. Long bursts of machine-gun fire rang out as the armored vehicles drew up to the insurgents, and eventually the shooting stopped.
The surprise attack exposed the precarious situation of the counterterrorism units leading the way into Mosul. While the elite fighters are advancing with relative ease, the regular army and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting next to them have struggled to keep up.
To reach Gogjali, the special forces raced ahead to beat a narrow corridor through enemy territory, inviting counterattacks on their flanks.
The Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division was slow to take the Christian town of Qaraqosh that lies south of the Golden Division’s front line base at Bartella. In the northwest, Peshmerga forces tasked with retaking the town of Bashiqa and pushing toward Mosul have yet to achieve their goal. In the south, across the Tigris, the Iraqi army is still further away from the city. With no immediate threat to its defense in the city there, ISIS might shift fighters to meet the Golden Division as it pushes in from Gogjali.
The men holding Bazwaya say they are unconcerned by the performance of their peers.
“The 9th and the 16th Division have been with us from the beginning. They have a lot of experience,” said Lt. Col. Alaa, a Golden Division intelligence officer, over a lunch of spinach stew with rice and bread.
The men keeping open the corridor to Gogjali have even more confidence in their comrades fighting further up front. As the Humvees that crushed the ambush roll in, a bulldozer emerges to remove the berm, depriving the soldiers of a barrier against attacks from the direction of Mosul.
As the bulldozer works swiftly to clear the way for the Humvees, its shovel unceremoniously tosses the wreckage of the suicide truck into a ditch next to the road. The mangled corpse of the driver comes tumbling after.