'They were running around like rats surprising us with suicide attacks and snipers': Smoke, rockets and fear on frontline of the battle for Mosul
Published 18/10/2016 | 08:11
The gunfire had stopped and the Kurdish Peshmerga commander confidently declared the village of Shakouli liberated from Isil.
Pleased to have made such good progress in just a few hours, Lieutenant Mehsen Gardi went about congratulating his officers.
But he was interrupted by a large explosion that caused the ground to tremble. It was a suicide bomb and it was followed in quick succession by a second and then third.
Lieutenant Mehsen Gardi had underestimated his opponent. As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) battles to defend its last major stronghold in Iraq, its footsoldiers are putting up a fierce fight to stop the troops reaching Mosul.
More than 4,000 Peshmerga, supported by dozens of US and British special forces on the ground and coalition planes in the skies, on Monday began moving in on villages and towns surrounding the city from the east.
The Iraqi army, coming up from Baghdad, pincered them from the south.
“There were less than 10 Daesh in the village,” Lt Gardi told the Telegraph, using the Arabic acronym for the group. “But they were running around like rats in and out of tunnels and surprising us with suicide attacks and snipers.”
Isil lit tyres on fire in an attempt to obscure the Peshmerga’s view. From their strategic position on top of a hill some 20 miles from Mosul on the Khazir frontline, the Kurdish troops could see the plumes of black smoke rise and the sound of crackling gunfire echoing down below.
The soldiers responded with katyusha rockets, which whistled overhead as they shot out of the launcher.
The Telegraph saw around 15 US special forces on the ground, watching the battle through binoculars and calling out coordinates for the rocket attacks.
Most of the 60-nation coalition's support has come in the shape of air strikes and training but US, French and British special forces are also on the ground to advise local forces in battle.
The offensive is the biggest operation in the country since the 2003 invasion.
It also marks the third time in 13 years that the US and its allies have tried to "liberate" Mosul: in 2003 from Saddam Hussein, a year later from Sunni insurgents and now from Isil.
Mosul fell to the Islamist group in June of 2014, when they blitzed across northern and western Iraq, overrunning nearly a third of the country unopposed.
By nightfall the Peshmerga had retaken three villages, but it cost them eight men.
Despite the setbacks Lt Gardi was still confident that they could reach the outskirts of the city before the end of the week. At which point they will hand over to the Iraqi army.
Inside the city there was panic when Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared the start of the offensive.
American F16s flew low over Mosul after the early morning announcement, while the Iraqi army fired mortars pummelled the southern outskirts.
Worried there will be an effective siege once troops move in, trapped residents have been stockpiling supplies to last several weeks.
"We set up a fortified room in the house by putting sandbags to block the only window and we removed everything dangerous or flammable," one resident, who gave his name as Abu Maher, said. "I spent almost all my money on buying food, baby milk and anything we might need."
Isil is using the more than a million residents as human shields, threatening to execute anyone who tries to leave. The estimated 8,000 jihadists live among civilians and have reportedly shaved their beards to evade capture.
The Iraqi government dropped leaflets over the city last weekend, warning residents to stay in their homes and not to mingle with the militants.
Residents told the Telegraph the jihadists are carrying out more house raids in attempt to stifle any rebellion. They said when the troops entered the city, many planned to fight Isil alongside them.
There was already some sign of dissent yesterday after a small group rose up against the jihadists, burning their “hisba” or religious police cars and daubing anti-Isil graffiti on the walls.
Abu Abdullah said whatever happened he wanted to witness the beginning of the offensive.
"We heard repeated explosions at a distance, so I went to the rooftop to see fireballs, even if it was dangerous. I was happy that the operation to liberate Mosul started," he said.
The group has become increasingly desperate to boost their numbers ahead of the battle, resorting to recruiting children to fight. And instead of the usual morning call to prayers overnight on Sunday, the mosques made a call for civilians to join them in the fight against the army.
The jihadists' defeat in Mosul appears to be only a matter of time, however. The US predicted Isil would suffer "a lasting defeat", but analysts say even the recapture of Mosul will not mark the end of the war against the group, which is likely to increasingly turn to insurgent tactics as it loses more ground.
Just hours after the offensive was launched, Isil claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing targeting an Iraqi army checkpoint south of Baghdad that killed at least 10 people.
“Isil will remain dangerous and pose a threat to the security of all of Iraq’s cities in the months ahead, as the surviving forces return to the asymmetric techniques that have been sharply honed in Iraq and Syria for many years,” said Prof Gareth Stansfield, Professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter. “Iraqi security officials fear a wave of bomb attacks , suicide attacks, and car bomb attacks in the period following Mosul’s retaking.”