At night, the temperature around the Islamic State-held city of Mosul drops to around 80°F. At the Bashiqa front line, 15 miles northeast of the city, it would feel pleasant and almost calm, were it not for the steady sound of exploding shells. Most of life is tea and cigarettes. It’s like a quiet day on the Western Front, minus the mud.
‘It’s so peaceful you can’t imagine what’s happening — it’s surreal,’ says Allan Duncan, a former soldier with the Royal Irish Regiment who volunteered to join the Kurdish peshmerga here two years ago in order to fight Isis. ‘You almost forget that things are so close to the end.’
Seth J Frantzman tells Lara Prendergast about the scramble for Mosul:
Because soon, the waiting — amid an abiding fear of attacks with suicide trucks, armoured like something out of Mad Max — will be over. The final assault on Mosul, which was taken by Islamic State two years ago, is expected to end Isis’s control of significant territory in Iraq.
Isis certainly seems to sense that the endgame has begun, and is responding with its customary brutality. It has been killing deserters, and relying on ever-younger recruits. Last month a massive car bomb killed 323 in a Shia district of Baghdad during Ramadan. (Foreign media speculated that the group was increasing its attacks during the holy month; locals, by contrast, reckon they have already grown fewer.)
It’s not, however, a simple matter of Isis versus everyone else. The battle for Mosul is like the race to get to Berlin between the Soviets and the West in 1945. The positioning of forces in this final push is expected to redraw the boundaries in northern Iraq. Kurds, Shia and Sunni Arabs, not to mention various minority groups, all have claims to stake.
For the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, whose army will attack Mosul from the south, this is a chance to reunify the country under the control of Baghdad. Iran, which supports Shia militias fighting alongside the Iraqi army, wants the same thing.
But for the Kurdish peshmerga here, the fight against Isis is another chance to carve out an autonomous state. And for the Sunni Arab militia which will join the Kurds in attacking Mosul from the west, the battle is a chance to re-establish a Sunni presence that has nothing to do with Islamic State. The Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, has told Sunni tribal leaders that Kurdish forces will participate in the operation to take Mosul but not enter the city itself.
Bahram Yassin, the peshmerga commanding officer, oversees 7,000 men along 30 miles of front line, and seems eager to move. It’s thought that Islamic State leaders are already fleeing the city for Syria. ‘People are deserting Isis now — their morale is very low and we are ready to attack them,’ he says. ‘We now know that they have no advanced weapons.’ He argues that the longer Isis is allowed to remain, the more Islam is besmirched. ‘These jihadists say they fight for the Islamic religion but that is not true, so the Kurds must destroy Isis, break them. If not, they will break us Muslims. That’s why we need international help.’ He wants more airstrikes, and he complains that Baghdad, far from the front, receives advanced anti-tank weapons while the peshmerga have to defend a large area with AK-47s.
Peshmerga volunteers work in shifts, spending ten days on the front line and 20 away from it. They might get paid two or three times in seven months. Many borrow money to fight. They lack standard uniforms, decent boots, binoculars and night-vision equipment. This is a civilian army, holding down jobs and supporting families, who have assembled out of love for their land and their people. The older men remember Saddam Hussein’s terror and the massacres of Kurds in the 1980s.
Iraq today is a country of refugees. Two million have come to the Kurdish region: minority communities such as Yazidis, Christians, Kakais and Shabaks, plus more than a million Sunni Arabs, with far more expected as the Mosul operation draws near. With oil prices at an all-time low, there is very little money coming in, and the local government wants international assistance.
Camped not far from the Bashiqa front is a Turkish-trained Sunni Arab militia called al-Hashd al-Watani. They distrust the Iraqi central government and its Iranian-backed Shia militias, whom they blame for destroying other cities liberated from Isis, such as Ramadi and Fallujah. ‘They were destroyed, but we believe we place in God’s hands the trust not to repeat those tragedies,’ one of the officers tells me. ‘It is late in the day — we cannot repeat that destruction in Mosul during the liberation.’ And Turkey’s agenda? It is engaged in daily battles with Kurdish separatists, and is vigorously opposed to Kurdish plans for independence.
The RAF is playing its part, dropping the occasional bomb on Isis positions in and around Mosul. A few weeks ago, its aircraft destroyed a weapons stash to the north of the city a few weeks ago (video below) and a palace built by Saddam Hussein, once used as a base for American troops.
America, Britain and other allies are concentrating on advising and assisting the Iraqi army. The US-led coalition has trained 32,000 Iraqi army soldiers — equipping them with M16s, body armour, helmets and modern armoured vehicles — as well as 8,000 peshmerga.
Meanwhile, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs both oppose the participation of Hashd al-Shaabi, an Iran-backed Shia militia which has been accused of sectarian killings in every major battle it has fought against Isis. But the group has said it will join the offensive anyway — though, like the Kurds, it will stop short of entering the city.
Last month, the Iraqi army captured the Qayyara airfield, 35 miles south of Mosul. This is its main staging post. But progress has been slow and the western allies admit the conquest of Mosul can only go as fast as the Iraqi army can move.
For two years now Isis has run this once rich and powerful city and the diverse areas around it, destroying its museums and expelling minorities. From the sandbagged positions overlooking Bashiqa, you can see the city lights glowing in the distance. Life seems to go on. Iraqi flags are said to be flying in some neighbourhoods; it’s rumoured that locals are set to rise up against Isis. If not, the city will suffer a grievous fate in the coming year and that will mean a protracted battle for its reconstruction and for its role in any future Iraq.
Seth J. Frantzman is a writer with the Jerusalem Post.