Original by Aleksandr Kots and Dmitriy Steshin published by Komsomolskaya Pravda; Translated by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
“The best helicopter in the world”
One should respect Iraqi pilots, if only because they allow you to smoke next to a helicopter that’s being refueled. They are, without any doubt, utterly fearless. Captain Makhmud who brought us to the airport is now lining up KP reporters next to the helo. He starts to record video with his phone, and then asks us to state the so-called “abandoning life” formula, which amounts to keeping all problems that might occur in-flight to ourselves, without blaming anyone. As it happens, it’s a widespread procedure not only among Russian paratroops but also Iraqi soldiers. We maintain a pregnant silence and force ourselves to smile, nodding all the while. We sign under every incomprehensible word.
A tiny cabin for six passengers with machine-gun mounts in every window. Half of the panel inscriptions is in English, half in Russian. That makes us feel a bit better. There are also brand-new panels in the cabin, they have been installed only recently. It would appear they were manufactured in Russia literally a year ago. Yet another confirmation that our MIC is pursuing the correct strategy–why develop a brand-new machine for untold amounts of money, train pilots for it, if one can instead modernize a familiar and proven design? Our Mi-35 underwent such a transformation, having received new navigational and aiming systems, detectors, anti-missile defenses, with everything else being just fine already. “This is the best helicopter in the world,” the navigator assures us before take-off.
Searching for a roving battery
Our helo makes a wide turn over the Kayara airbase where we’ve been staying for the last few days. It has had a difficult existence. It was built under Saddam, and no expense or reinforced concrete was spared for underground hangars and hardened shelters. After the “victory of democracy” the new Iraqi army made its home here. In 2014 it was captured by ISIS, in 2015 it was bombed into rubble by the US. The remnants now house the main military camp for the force storming Mosul from the south. You can find everything here, even a pontoon park. The frontline runs along the Tigris, and the military is not denying that some forces will assault-cross it.
To the left of us and slightly below is the accompanying, tiny Bell helicopter. It coordinates Mi-35 actions using input from the ground. If anything happens, we’ll be rescuing one another.
The first task is to find a mortar battery on the outskirts of Khammam al-Alil. Everyone knows what “khamam” means, “lil” means “sick” in Arabic, so it’s a “bath for the sick.” There indeed are curative mudbaths and hot springs on the city’s outskirts. Of course, ISIS did not encourage such self-healing, which means the spa town experienced neglect, almost to the point of appearing completely abandoned. Moreover, Iraqi interior troops set up positions, with three dozen light armored vehicles, frequently exchanging volleys with the terrorists.
We look on in astonishment as we are flying over the very same positions over which we were just days ago. Only yesterday we received nothing but a single mortar shell that landed at an industrial park. But today, having found their range, ISIS blanketed Iraqi positions with fire. Iraqi pilots need to find these mortars and then move on to Mosul.
The gray-yellow earth swims past beneath us, as if in a dream. We’re expecting to see tracers rising up to meet us, then holes in the fuselage, with the sound of metal grinding against metal. The ZU-23, the 23mm twin anti-aircraft gun, is nearly as popular in the Middle East as the Kalashnikov. You’ll find one mounted on every other Japanese pick-up. Then there are the no less popular DShK 12.7mm machine-guns. But the oases and villages below are empty or destroyed. In every other courtyard, we see an abandoned or overturned standard gasoline cistern for 32 thousand liters. One can find sulfur along the banks of rivers where they make tight turns–once upon a time, one could extract oil from pits, and every other village has a home-brew refinery which sells its products along the road. The half-desert is dotted with abandoned positions and shelters. We see the excellent four-lane asphalt highway to Mosul. Except that it’s cut every 200 meters by a ditch that reaches all the way to the horizon. This highly original artificial obstacle cannot be bypassed in any way.
Closer to Mosul, the terrain becomes open desert over which some vehicles are fleeing from us raising clouds fo dust. Neither the Bell nor the Mi-35 deign to attack these targets. Flying parallel to them, we strike fear in their hearts and then, having observed the suburbs of the ISIS capital from an altitude of 1 km, we make a turn to head back. The Mi-35 did not have orders to engage. The helos were on a recon mission over the neutral zone that spans the 10km between ISIS and the Iraqi army.
–We combed a decent patch of territory but, unfortunately, haven’t found a single target, –Major Khaldun Ali walks up to us after landing. –Ground recon also had no results.
–Do you always fly this low?
–After 2013, there were several cases of helos being hit by missiles. One of them flew right next ot mine. But at the moment the terrorists have nearly no SAMs left, so it’s much safer to fly. However, they still have plenty of AA guns and machine-guns. But this Russian machine is simply wonderful, it’s a work of art. Fast, maneuverable, no complaints, I’m pleased with everything.
As we are parting, they want to know where they can watch the video and read our report.
–I have a girlfriend in Russia, Katyusha, –Adam smiles modestly. –I really miss her.
–Come to Russia, then!
–There’s a war on, –Adam says. –We don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow…