Tel Reem, Iraq // The grenades burst out of the mortar tubes and into the overcast sky with a thunderous crack, arrowing out of sight before arching to begin their descent on the ISIL-held village of Nasr.
A few moments later, a huge explosion shook Nasr, a cluster of buildings straddling a ridge that lined the horizon, its boom rolling down towards the Iraqi army’s firing position in the hamlet of Tel Reem. A pillar of smoke shot up before gradually spreading sideways.
The Iraqi soldiers in Tel Reem greeted the sight with cheers and cries of “Allahu Akbar”, and crowded around an officer who launched into an impromptu press conference in front of an excited gaggle of fighters and journalists.
Suddenly, panic spread among the throng, and the men scattered and ran for cover. Humvees that had been parked haphazardly behind a large earthen berm roared into life and were swiftly driven to the rear. The boastful officer was nowhere to be seen.
It was a false alarm. One of the soldiers thought he had heard the whistle of an incoming mortar, and his fear immediately spread among his comrades. Their flight caused much hilarity among the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, who had remained sitting on their vehicles, which they had positioned up against the berm, guns facing the enemy.
“It’s not the first time the Iraqi army has run away,” one of the Kurdish fighters commented sarcastically.
The skittishness of the Iraqi soldiers was also symptomatic of an underwhelming start of the campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIL. For weeks, the Iraqi army had massed at Makhmour, a Kurdish-held town about 80 kilometres from Mosul. US Marines had establishing an artillery firebase to add to the devastating coalition air strikes pummelling ISIL positions.
The army finally moved forward on Thursday. Two days later, it had succeeded in taking only three villages that stood in the way of Qayyarah, a strategic ISIL-held town near the Tigris river that is to become a staging post for the attack on Mosul.
Nasr was one of the villages blocking the army’s advance longer than it should. On Thursday, columns of armoured cars ventured out of Tel Reem to take up positions around Nasr. The muzzles of their heavy machine guns flashed periodically, and in the afternoon an air strike shook the ground. But by nightfall, ISIL was still clinging on, and lines of tracer rounds whizzed through the dark as the army and the extremists exchanged fire. A truckful of soldiers drove out to spend an uncomfortable night in the contested village, their faces tense.
A day later, the scene was unchanged. Groups of Humvees and bigger Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) sat on the outskirts of Nasr, but no effort was made to take control of the village.
“The operation has been going to plan and will continue to go to plan,” insisted an Iraqi army colonel who declined to give his name.
But the peshmerga, who have held Tel Reem since the front lines coalesced after the initial onrush by ISIL in 2014, looked on with barely concealed scorn.
“The Iraqi army isn’t pushing as strongly as it should,” said Maj Gen Zryan Shekhwasani, the peshmerga commander in this sector. “The Iraqi army has much better weapons and vehicles than us. But at the current pace I wonder how many months it will take them to liberate Mosul.”
On Friday afternoon, a group of weary men returned from Nasr in a pickup truck. They looked dejected as they explained that sniper fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had prevented them from entering the village.
“Daesh left the village this afternoon, but came back after half an hour. There is no air support. There are planes in the sky but they are not intervening,” complained one fighter, who belonged to a local Sunni militia allied with the Iraqi army.
ISIL had begun to return mortar fire from Nasr, and puffs of smoke rose into the sky barely 200 metres away from the soldiers on the outskirts of the village. They did nothing to stop the bombardment, and soon grenades came crashing down near Tel Reem.
As the army laboured to make headway against a weakened but determined enemy, the challenge presented by Mosul was plain to see. ISIL has been in control of Iraq’s second-largest city since June 2014, and several thousand of its fighters are estimated to be inside it.
The drawn out battles to retake cities such as Ramadi and Tikrit from ISIL have shown how difficult it is to advance in heavily mined urban areas. In Mosul, the extremist group is restricting movement out of the city, keeping residents as a human shield against air strikes.
Ramadi was finally cleared by Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Services earlier this year. Liberating Mosul, which is about three times the size of Ramadi, requires much greater manpower. The government has been reluctant to turn to the Shia militias that retook Tikrit and have been doing the bulk of the fighting since the Iraqi army collapsed against ISIL in 2014. Accused of a series of sectarian killings, their deployment might cause the residents of predominantly Sunni Mosul to side with ISIL.
This has led to the large-scale deployment of the poorly trained and badly led Iraqi soldiers now struggling to take villages around Makhmour. They are backed by the local Sunni militia known as the Hashed Al Watani, who have proven themselves equally inept at Nasr. The role of the peshmerga remains unclear. While the Kurds have pledged to help liberate Mosul, they might limit their support to clearing the areas around the city.
But first, Qayyarah and other staging points have to be secured. Qayyarah’s strategic importance is not just due to its proximity to Mosul, but also because it lies on the road to Hawija, the easternmost town still under ISIL control. If the road is cut, ISIL forces in Hawija will be surrounded, and Mosul’s defenders will be further isolated.
"The first step towards taking Mosul is taking Qayyarah," General Aras, a peshmerga officer, told The National in Tel Reem.
The Kurds will then advance to towards the town of Bashiqa north-west of Mosul, reducing the area around the city under ISIL control, said Gen Aras. The Iraqi army will head straight towards Mosul, he added.
With the Iraqi army build-up likely to continue, another objective is to clear the area around Makhmour, after ISIL managed to hit the US artillery base with rockets last week, killing one Marine and wounding several others.
As the Iraqi army lumbered on, a less convenient ally in the fight against ISIL also went on the offensive. The Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, has by its own account since Thursday pushed ISIL out of three villages to the west of the town of Sinjar, which it cleared together with the peshmerga last November.
The PKK is classed as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union due to a decades-long armed struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey, but its guerrillas have been ISIL’s toughest opponents in Iraq, while its Syrian affiliate has inflicted some crushing defeats on the extremists.
The PKK claims to be part of the operations to liberate Mosul.
“They are acting in cooperation with the Iraqi forces,” said Zagros Hiwa, a PKK spokesperson in northern Iraq.
The lightly armed but fierce and committed fighters of the PKK stand in stark contrast to the Iraqi army, which has been lavished with state-of-the-art US weaponry, but has shown little signs of progress since its ignominious collapse in 2014.