NAWARAN, Iraq — Shortly before daybreak the armor-plated diggers begin to eat away furiously at the berm, or earthen wall, that runs across the road to Mosul.
The two machines painted in camouflage patterns pace back and forth, headlights darting around angrily as they plunge their shovels into the soft earth like hungry beasts.
Behind them, a seemingly endless array of vehicles has massed, with Soviet-era tanks, armored vehicles, and ordinary saloon cars bunched together. Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers stand around in groups, or try to catch some sleep in the back of their pick-up trucks. Before them lies the ISIS-held village of Nawaran.
Soon, the first berm has been levelled, its earth used to fill the trench that lies at its feet. The second and final line of defense soon follows, paving the way for the Kurds to make their final contribution of the morning in the war against the so-called Islamic State.
The autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq has been keeping ISIS at bay since its Peshmerga forces managed to stop the jihadists’ advance with the help of U.S. airstrikes in 2014.
In November 2015, the Peshmergas pushed the insurgents back from the territory administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and launched a high-profile offensive to retake the town of Sinjar.
Now, with the campaign underway to liberate ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second largest metropolis, the Kurds are joining battle, pouring down from their front lines that straddle the mountain ranges, hills and flatlands north of the city.
Their armored formations rumble forward in a multi-pronged attack aimed at surrounding and then taking the town of Bashiqa, and the Christian town of Telskuf further west. Narawan is the launching point for one of the pincers that will encircle Bashiqa.
The Kurdish advance is expected to collapse the Islamic State’s northern Mosul front. It will also allow the Kurds to incorporate stretches of the fertile Nineveh plains that they consider theirs, but which were under the control of the central government in Baghdad until ISIS rolled into Mosul and the surrounding areas in 2014.
Once the towns and villages in these disputed areas have been cleared, the Peshmerga will stop their advance, and allow the Iraqi army to pass through their lines to finish the job in Mosul. The Kurds say that Baghdad has acquiesced to losing the disputed territories near Mosul in return for Kurdish support in the city’s liberation.
“We have an agreement with the Iraqi government to move towards Mosul and take the Kurdish areas,” says Ali Awna, a leadership council member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which rules the KRG in a coalition government.
As the sun rises at Narawan, a long line of vehicles springs into life, the roar of their engines filling the morning air. One by one, the heavy frames of armored cars lumber past the Kurdish fortifications that have kept ISIS at bay for the past two years. On the ramparts the Peshmerga stand gathered to cheer on their vanguard.
From two hills along the front line, artillery pours fire into a cluster of villages that lies in the gently rolling farmland of Nineveh province. Nawaran is barely three hundred meters from the Kurdish lines, a constant source of danger from ISIS snipers and suicide bombers.
Now, two heavy antiaircraft guns repurposed to soften up its defenses are pummeling the village. Plumes of white smoke rise to the horizon where coalition airstrikes have hit with dry thuds. A little further up the road in the village of Baremi, ISIS has set alight piles of car tires and pools of oil, creating a smokescreen to obscure the view of the warplanes preying above.
To the steady crack of the cannons, the column advances past Narawan, spraying the village with heavy machine guns before veering off into the fields towards a village in the distance.
A little later, a second column ventures forward, spearheaded by two U.S. Special Forces vehicles. Sitting in their state-of-the-art armored cars, the elite U.S. operators remain invisible, but their presence on the front lines in Iraq has ceased being a secret.
The increasing involvement of U.S. troops is also sadly reflected in the growing list of U.S. casualties in Iraq.The Pentagon on Thursday confirmed that a serviceman had died from a roadside bomb blast that day, the fourth US soldier to die in the war on ISIS in Iraq. Figures for the wounded have not been made readily available.
To prevent the improvised explosive devices that ISIS has littered along the advance routes from doing any damage, a huge bulldozer rolls out from beyond the old frontline. Thick plates of steel have been welded around the cockpit and the engine compartment, the driver peering out of small windows shielded by bullet proof glass.
The driver, 40-year-old Youssef Ismail, is an experienced hand. He has been operating this metallic monster since ISIS attacked the Kurdish region. The left side of his cockpit is scarred by the impact of heavy machine gun rounds, and his shovel has detonated a dozen roadside bombs as it scraped off the surface of the paths Youssef clears for his comrades. During fighting near the town of Makhmour, a suicide car bomber crashed into him, but the huge shovel shielded him from the detonation.
Today, Youssef will be in this bulldozer “from morning to evening,” he says as he leaves the road to clear a way through the fields towards Baremi.
More cars stream towards the enemy during the morning. The MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles), armored Humvees and German Dingos have been largely replaced by pickup trucks mounted with machine guns or light anti-aircraft cannons. The KRG has enjoyed some U.S. and European support, but has not been lavished with military hardware like the Iraqi army.
As the Kurds fan out into enemy territory, this lack of protection begins to cost them. By the early afternoon, a steady stream of ambulances comes careening up the road. One of the advance columns has been attacked by a car bomb which succeeded in inflicting casualties.
“They target the vehicles that do not have any armor,” says a Peshmerga who has accompanied a wounded comrade back from the front.
The ambulances continue to arrive all afternoon.
A pickup truck pulls up, its driver careful to steer avoid bumps and potholes, because a member of the gun crew is lying in the back, his head resting on the ledge of the flatbed, hair wet with blood.
A throng of fighters gathers around each of the vehicles that arrives. The cheerful mood that has spread after the advance units pushed out has vanished, and men look on with somber faces as casualties are transferred to ambulances that drive them to a nearby hospital. The Peshmerga refuse to discuss their losses, but it is clear that the day’s fighting has taken its toll.
As ISIS military strength has faded, the terror group has reverted to insurgency tactics that are obvious at Narawan. Short in numbers, the jihadists do not man a coherent front line, but defend villages with small groups of fighters who wait patiently until they can spring an ambush, and who move unseen in tunnels to launch surprise attacks.
In this densely populated part of Iraq, villages lie close together, and it is impossible to move far without being fired at from several directions. Suicide attacks sap the momentum of the advance, while the heavy mining of roads and houses further slows down the Kurds and makes it difficult to clear villages swiftly.
By the end of the day, only Narawan has been secured completely, and the Peshmerga dig in for the night within sight of their old front lines.
The threadbare ISIS defense will not be able to stop the Kurds from taking their objectives and claiming the land that they feel is theirs. But the Peshmerga know that victory in the final battle against their fanatical opponents will not come easy.