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Iraq’s battle-hardened Golden Division seek their greatest victory in Mosul

Once despised, Iraq’s Special Operations Forces have become viewed as heroes for their success in defeating ISIL. Florian Neuhof, Foreign Correspondent, spent time with the Golden Division as they battle to liberate Mosul in their toughest fight yet.
Civilians escape the fighting in Mosul's Samah district and are directed to safety by a soldier from the Golden Division. (Photo by Florian Neuhof)
Civilians escape the fighting in Mosul's Samah district and are directed to safety by a soldier from the Golden Division. (Photo by Florian Neuhof)

Mosul // Darkness has fallen as Col Muntabar Al Samari gets out of his black Humvee in a residential street in the abandoned Christian town of Bartella.

His heavy frame is set against the night sky as he pauses on the porch of the house that has served as a base for his unit of elite fighters since they set themselves up in the town for the push into nearby Mosul. He looks tired; a day’s fighting behind him.

For several days, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces that the colonel and his men are part of have been in intense combat. The campaign to liberate Mosul has been under way since October 17, and on November 4 armoured vehicles from the force breached the extremist’s outer defences and entered the city.

Around 4,000 of the elite troops are now positioned in the eastern outskirts of Mosul, while the 1st Infantry Division and the 9th Armoured Division of the Iraqi army is fighting on the south-eastern fringes.

The presence of the special operations forces has provoked a fierce backlash from ISIL, with militants ambushing assault columns and launching constant hit-and-run attacks on the soldiers fighting to control neighbourhoods.

Iraqi forces blow up rigged vehicle

Blending in with the civilian population, the insurgents are an elusive foe, moving through tunnels and hiding in built-up areas. Their tactics provide little for the US-led coalition to target with its air power. With fanatical disregard for life, the militants launch explosive-packed cars at their opponents, while the streets are mined and the houses booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices.

The men of the Iraqi special forces are accustomed to this way of fighting. For the past two years, they have been rolling back ISIL in a series of battles across Iraq. Their success has turned them into national heroes, and earned them the moniker by which they are most commonly: the Golden Division.

Mosul, the last major ISIL stronghold in Iraq, will be the toughest fight yet. Around 5,000 extremist fighters are thought to be defending the city, where more than a million civilians are estimated to be trapped.

“They are using the same tactics they have always used. The difference is that there are many of them, and that makes it difficult for us,” says Col Al Samari as he passes through the doorway and into the living room, sparsely furnished with three narrow beds, a wardrobe and a bedside table. A bible in Arabic script and Christian iconography is a reminder of the home’s former inhabitants, two bullet holes in the wall and a shattered window hint at the war raging a few kilometres away.

Tall and broad-shouldered, Col Al Samari cuts an imposing figure in the trademark black uniform of the Golden Division that is stretched by a slightly bulging waistline. A serious, somewhat shy man with greying hair, he is courteous and answers questions patiently. His men are at ease around him, but he clearly commands their respect.

Col Al Samari’s battalion, ISOF 2 Mosul, was stationed in Mosul when ISIL stormed into the city in June 2014. The unit was ordered to withdraw rather than fight and they spent the next two years battling ISIL across the country, hoping one day to return to their abandoned barracks in the west of Mosul.

Their first big fight was at Beiji, the country’s largest oil refinery, which changed hands several times before Iraqi forces were able to secure it. In May, the men entered Fallujah and fought a six-week battle to liberate the city. Before taking Bartella and breaking into Mosul, Col Al Samari’s men took part in a dash along the Tigris that culminated in the liberation of Qayyarah, a town 60 kilometres south of the city.

The long road back to Mosul has filled the colonel with contempt for his enemy.

“It’s like fighting a mindless robot,” he says, reaching for another Kent Convertible cigarette, which he smokes after attaching a disposable filter.

Indoctrinated with their hardline ideology, ISIL insurgents fight to the death. Imbued with this fanaticism, they easily overwhelmed the dispirited and poorly led Iraqi army in the early stages of the war in 2014, and it fell to the special forces and Shiite militia groups to halt their advance on Baghdad.

With the esprit de corps of an elite outfit, and spared the rampant corruption that undermined the Iraqi army, the special forces quickly proved effective. But it was not the fight they had been prepared for, says Col Al Samari.

The elite units were set up after the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq to help the US military deal with the insurgency. They were trained by US special forces and became experts in sophisticated counterterrorism operations, often storming buildings to arrest or take out suspected extremists in night-time raids.

After the collapse of the army against ISIL in 2014, the special forces switched to operating as a conventional force, liberating villages, towns and cities, while having to prepare defensive positions against ISIL counter-attacks.

“We learned all that fighting Daesh,” says the colonel.

The war has transformed the once tarnished reputation of the elite door kickers, who are under the direct command of Iraq’s prime minister. Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki used them to arrest political rivals and anyone opposed to his rule, and the counterterrorism outfit became known as the “Dirty Division”.

“In the past, I didn’t tell anyone where I worked. When I travelled back home, I took off my uniform and put on civilian clothes. I would tell my neighbours I was with the army,” says Col Al Samari over dinner.

Sitting on a mattress on the floor in the anteroom beside a spread of fried chicken, eggs, vegetable stew and salad, the colonel eats little, pointing to his waistline in explanation. Instead, he drinks big cups of sugary tea throughout the evening.

After the meal, he changes into tracksuit trousers and a jumper, reclines on his bed and begins to scroll through his phone messages. A few of his officers sit down next to the colonel to talk, friends discussing the day’s events.

The next morning, the men of ISOF 2 Mosul rise early. The smell of fried eggs wafts through the hallway, and a soldier cheerfully sings in the kitchen as he watches breakfast being prepared. A group of soldiers sit in a room eating and chatting as they dip bread into egg yolk and tahini.

Before long, they rise and climb into their Humvees, seating themselves among the clutter of war. Ammunition boxes, grenades, anti-tank missiles and assault rifles fill the space inside, where the soldiers are shielded by heavy steel doors and thick bullet proof windows, many of which bear the circular impact marks of heavy machine gun rounds.

Engines spring into life, and the soldiers set off towards Mosul. The convoy leaves the paved road leading into the city in the suburb of Gogjali, taking a left on to the dirt track that straddles the city’s perimeter. A right turn puts it back on track for the city centre, and the black vehicles kick up clouds of dust as they speed past clusters of houses that dot the landscape of Mosul’s fringes until they reach the Samah neighbourhood a little further inside.

The cars pass groups of soldiers manning positions in Samah, where the Golden Division is out in force to prevent ISIL from infiltrating the area, and come to a standstill in a residential street not far from the adjacent neighbourhood of Kirkukli.

The soldiers exit their Humvees to the soundtrack of war. Machine guns rattle off close by, assault rifles let off bursts of fire and the thump of explosions mix in as mortar shells fall close by.

The hostilities remain out of sight, most of the time: a black-clad soldier smiles wryly as a Russian made TOS-1 thermobaric missile arches overhead, clearly visible as it drops towards its target before impacting and spreading its huge blast wave less than a kilometre away.

The men of ISOF 2 that spent the night in this forward position in Samah stand next to their armoured vehicles, their M4 rifles slung over their shoulders. Some are still sleeping in the house they have requisitioned.

Occasionally, civilians emerge from their homes, often carrying white flags to avoid being mistaken for insurgents. They have chosen to remain in the city despite the danger, preferring to stay in their houses rather than face displacement during the cold winter months.

Others make a run for it, and groups of men, women and children pass by the position from the direction of Kirkukli. Every now and again, ISIL allows some civilians to flee the areas it controls, while keeping the remainder trapped as human shields.

The men of the Golden Division direct the fleeing families towards safety, and do their best to keep Samah’s remaining residents safe. There is mistrust on both sides. Many of Mosul’s inhabitants welcomed ISIL in 2014 amid a wave of Sunni anger at perceived marginalisation by an increasingly sectarian government, and some joined the insurgents.

Mosuls residents still remember the abuses they suffered at the hands of the Shiite-dominated army and police force before ISIL, and have been told by the extremists that Iraqi forces will exact revenge on the Sunni population for their humiliation.

On the ground in Samah, the reality is very different. The danger comes from ISIL, which fires off mortar rounds indiscriminately, and has left behind some nasty surprises. The night before, Col Al Samari was told that an explosives-packed vehicle had been found in the neighbourhood.

The minivan, which has sheets of metal welded to its bonnet and windscreen, is towed to an open space by a special forces Humvee. In the hands of an ISIL infiltrator, the vehicle could still become a deadly weapon.

Residents are told to move inside and Col Al Samari orders a nearby sedan to be towed away, and then instructs his men to blow up the van with an AT-4 shoulder-held anti-tank missile.

Using a house as cover, one of the soldiers aims the tube and pulls the trigger. The missile hits the van with a bang, disabling it but not igniting the explosives packed inside.

The colonel is not one to leave a job undone, and an Abrams tank borrowed from the 9th Division is called in. The giant war machine stops close to the van and the gun turret turns and discharges its cannon. The deafening bellow is followed immediately by a massive explosion, and a pillar of smoke is sent towards the sky. When the smoke clears, no trace of the van is to be found, and routine sets in again for the men of ISOF 2 Mosul.

Published: November 14, 2016 04:00 AM


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