Iraq’s elite troops stretched thin by ISIL suicide bombers and pockets of resistance

The Golden Division has a string of successes against the extremists to its name. But it lacks the manpower to keep going forward while also fully securing the areas already taken, reports Florian Neuhof.

Iraqi civilians flee Gogjali, an industrial area on the eastern fringes of Mosul, on November 2, 2016. Bulent Kilic / AFP
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BAZWAYA, Iraq // Piled into trucks and battered sedan cars, the villagers slowly made their way to safety. In each vehicle, a passenger waved a white flag fashioned out of bed sheets and broomsticks to signal peaceful intent.

Relief was etched on the faces of families as they drove eastward out of Bazwaya on Tuesday morning, a day after Iraqi special forces arrived in the dusty village on the outskirts of Mosul to put an end to ISIL rule.

By the time the civilians left Bazwaya, some of the elite counterterrorism troops had already headed in the opposite direction towards Mosul.

On Tuesday morning these troops became the first Iraqi soldiers to set foot in the northern city since the army ignominiously abandoned it to ISIL in June 2014. By the end of the day, they had taken control of Gogjali, an industrial area on the eastern fringes of Mosul, and on Wednesday night were poised to advance deeper into the city.

The troops’ advance was halted on Wednesday when poor weather conditions obscured the view of coalition warplanes providing close support, but morale within the elite outfit was high. Known as the Golden Division, the counterterrorism group has a string of victories against ISIL to its name and many of the soldiers gathered at the edge of Mosul took part in the liberation of Fallujah in May.

“When they see us coming, they just run away,” Arif Mohammed, one of the Golden Division soldiers guarding Bazwaya, said of the extremists. Short of fighters, ISIL relies on suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted on the roadside and in buildings to slow the advance of its opponents, he added.

Evidence of this tactic is easy to spot in Bazwaya. On Tuesday morning, the shattered remains of a pickup truck lay across an earthen barricade blocking the road leading to Mosul. A few feet away, the mangled corpse of its driver stuck out from the earth.

The truck had hit just hours earlier at 6am, as Golden Division troops were forming their armoured Humvees into a column to move on Gogjali. As the truck careened towards the troops it instantly came under fire from the heavy machine guns mounted on the Humvees, and was then hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. This caused the driver to ignite explosives in the truck’s flatbed before hitting his target – a crater near the berm marking the spot of the blast.

Around noon, gunfire suddenly erupted in Bazwaya. Bullets whizzed towards Golden Division soldiers who had taken up position in a building near the berm, fired from a row of houses further down the road. The elite troops responded immediately, directing heavy machine gun rounds and automatic fire at the buildings.

The firefight continued until a group of Humvees were sent back from Gogjali to support their comrades. The black Humvees pulled up close and poured long bursts of machine gunfire into the houses until all resistance ceased.

The surprise attack was launched by ISIL fighters who had hidden in tunnels when the village was taken on Monday, biding their time until they were sure they could catch the soldiers holding the village unawares.

The insurgents have made extensive use of tunnels to hide from war planes belonging to the anti-ISIL coalition and to ambush advancing Iraqi troops, and the Golden Division has made it a priority to destroy them. But in the advance towards Mosul, the elite unit is stretched thin, and lacks the manpower to fully secure the areas they have taken.

In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the elite fighters will have to rely on the army or the police to hold the ground behind the front, and hope that those forces are up to the task.

Golden Division troops also hope that the local population will lend their support.

Sat in the courtyard of a spare car parts depot in Bazwaya on Tuesday, an intelligence officer with the Golden Division was confident that Mosul’s inhabitants will be a valuable asset in the upcoming battle.

“We have sources in the city that provide us with information about the enemy. They are helping us a lot and that makes the operation easier. We know how many Daesh fighters are in every area,” he said while eating lunch with fellow officers.

For some time, there have also been reports of targeted killings of ISIL members by small resistance groups in the city. And two-and-a-half months ago in Qayyarah, a town about 60 kilometres south of Mosul, about 15 men took up arms against remaining ISIL fighters as the Golden Division closed in.

“In some of the places we liberated, the locals rose up against with Daesh,” the intelligence officer said. “We expect that to happen in Mosul.”