OUTSIDE BARTELLA, Iraq — “You see the smoke? It’s from my city!’ Karam Hasso said excitedly as he drove down the highway that cuts between Erbil and Mosul, rosary beads and a cross dangling from his rearview mirror. Up until this morning, this stretch of road that led to Hasso’s hometown—Qaraqosh, a Christian town—had been inside ISIS territory.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it in two years,” Hasso added.
In 2014, ISIS fighters had pushed north and east from Mosul into the Nineveh plains, unleashing terror and cutting a swath of destruction in the Christian cities and villages that dotted this area. When ISIS took over, locals said, it was the first time in 1,600 years that Mosul’s church bells fell silent. The few Christians who remained were given a simple, brutal choice: convert, leave, or die.
Walking along the highway, the stocky, shaven-head Hasso—sporting a five o'clock shadow and clad in cargo pants and military boots—said his family had lived in Qaraqosh “from the beginning of history,” and that he owned two cafes there; he hoped they weren’t destroyed. He pointed to a demolished concrete structure and twisted metal wreckage. “This used to be a second hand shop,” he said.
For now, Hasso’s hometown was still being held by ISIS militants. But the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga troops, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and artillery, had pushed toward towards Qaraqosh. It’s part of the biggest operation yet in the fight against ISIS inside Iraq. And the fighting will not be easy; on Thursday, the U.S. military announced that an improvised explosive had killed an American service member not far from here, the first U.S. casualty in this new push to take down ISIS’ Iraqi capital.
The new front opened up early Thursday morning, as the combined forces aimed to liberate roughly two-dozen villages. By midday, progress in Bartella, a town eight miles east of Mosul, had been steady as the Iraqi Army’s well-regarded Golden Division fought onward.
Iraqi Army Humvees sped up and down the highway leading to Bartella. Smashed concrete structures and twisted metal dotting the sides of the roads, with the occasional crater from an explosion or red flag pointing out the location of an improvised bomb. Soldiers flashed victory signs as artillery and mortars thumped in the distance. Sporadic gunfire echoed from inside the town.
Along the way, a 67-year-old former Peshmerga fighter limped along towards the sound of clashes, helped by two younger men. Muhammad Abdul Qadir, from nearby Kalak, said he had three sons and two brothers fighting at the front right now, and “wanted to see” what was happening.
The Bartella front, though, was an Iraqi special forces operation, with the Golden Division at the forefront. In the past, that might have made the area a no-go zone for him. The Peshmerga and Iraqi forces had previously been at odds, with many Kurds furious at an Iraqi Army that fled when ISIS swept to power in 2014. But now, the grey-haired, impressively mustachioed Qadir, dressed in an old school Peshmerga uniform of baggy pants, a sash twirled around his waist, and a checkered scarf wrapped around his head—said, “There’s no difference between us.”
If anything, a sense of unity was apparent. Under the shade of an Iraqi army Humvee, a Peshmerga fighter sat with two Iraqi special forces soldiers who had just returned from the front.
The fighters said they had faced numerous ISIS car bombs that morning, as well as snipers, improvised explosives, and mortars. Sgt. Majar Haider Ravi of the Golden Division, said that the fighting had “looked easy, but the car bombs and suicide bombers were tough.”
At one point, he picked up a blood-splattered vest in the back of the Humvee. Three of his colleagues had been wounded, he said, and his crew had brought them to safety.
Mustafa Jabour, the peshmerga sitting with the Iraqi men, hadn’t fought that day but was there because he was from Bartella and was waiting to enter his soon to be liberated village. He wished that he and the other peshmerga had joined the fighting in Bartella, but echoing Abdul Qadir, said that now with the Iraqi army, “there is no difference between us.”
There were pockets of resistance still in Bartella, however. Pillars of black and grey smoke rose in the distance, machine gun fire echoing off the buildings. Atop a nearby four-story building that gave the best view of the city, General Ma’an Al Sa’adi of the Golden Division shouted directions in a walkie-talkie, encouraging different groups of his soldiers to link up inside the city.
Bartella was nearly completely under control, and nearby Qaraqosh was surrounded. The general said his men would most likely enter the city on Friday.
“Today, ISIS was here in this building,” he added. “When ISIS saw the power of the attack, it affected their morale.”
As he spoke, a helicopter flew overhead, firing a machine gun and then letting off two rockets. The general said he estimated his men had killed 80 ISIS militants out of a total of 100 fighting inside Bartella.
Nearby on the roof, Taher Saeed stared off at the smoke rising from his city with tears in his eye. A TV director, he said he had spent the last three days on the frontlines, and that he “couldn’t stop crying.” His cousin actually owned the building, and he had received calls from friends and relatives in Lebanon, Turkey and Europe of people waiting to hear when it would be safe to come back.
Saeed, a Syriac Catholic, said that entering his city again would be like a “rebirth.”
“Once I get there, I will kiss the ground,” he said, his eyes still watering.