Original by Aleksandr Kots and Dmitriy Steshin published by Komsomolskaya Pravda; translation by J.Hawk
If one looks at an operational-level Mosul assault map, one notices an odd detail which for some reason escapes the attention of Western analysts. The ISIS capital is being approached from the south by federal police, from the east by Iraqi anti-terrorist forces, and from the north by the Iraqi army…Which makes the west the obvious retreat route into Syria, as it’s not covered by any regular forces. It is covered only by the popular levies, the Hashd al-Shaabi, which includes local Shia who are supported by Iran. With Hezbollah fighters fighting alongside them. Yes, it’s an amazing situation, the US anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq includes an organization which the US labels “terrorist.”
Various rumors circulate about the Hashd al-Shaabi. Popular wisdom credits them win uncommon bravery and battlefield cleverness. Social media are full of videos showing Shia militiamen coming up with innovative ways to do away with captured ISIS fighters. For example, crushing them with tanks…In some respects, these executions are no different than what ISIS propaganda depicts. Therefore we went to visit their positions with mixed feelings. The first thing we saw upon arriving at their disposition were two corpses with legs bound by electrical cord. Judging by their appearance, they were dragged behind a vehicle through the entire village, then left to rot on the outskirts.
–No photographs! We don’t have the permit for that! –we were yelled at by someone from the militia media center who accompanied us. But then he softened his stance. –Don’t film close-ups!
But the zoom lens captured the traces of torture on ISIS militants’ bodies. It may well be they are still laying there, on the intersection of desert roads, and according to fundamentalist Islam someone who’s not buried before the sunset will not enter heaven.
It’s difficult to decide who inspired whom, Hollywood designers from desert warriors or vice versa. We found ourselves in the midst of all three Mad Max movies all at once. The only thing that was missing were warrior women in armored bras. The so-called “gun trucks”, with fearsome bumpers, anti-shrapnel shields, and bizarre gun mounts, are everywhere. Warriors with flags tied to their backs, warriors with pictures of Shia saints between their shoulder blades who are looking sternly at all who follow and make it impossible to chicken out under their gaze. That’s probably the hidden purpose of this kind of agitation.
We clamber onto the flat roof of a village school, which is a wonderful observation point overlooking the desert. Oddly, this village has not suffered damage during the assault, except for one mortar bomb that hit the roof. Through the hole, one can see school benches covered with a thick layer of dust–it doesn’t look as if there was much learning here when ISIS was in charge. A Russian-made Kornet ATGM, which is greatly respected here, is set up on the roof. A sniper in a dusty camouflage “ghillie suit” is undergoing the namaz prayer ritual.
Next to the range-finder is a representative delegation of elders. They take turns looking through the optics to watch two circling helicopters methodically working over some village 5-7km away. The members of the delegation wear civilian clothing, but something tells us they are in command of this “death ballet.”
–This morning, the Hashd al-Shaabi began the assault on Tel Afar, -we’re told by the militia Martyrs Brigade commander Hadi Amir. –Our units are attacking from four directions, the main task is to cut off Tel Afar from Mosul, cut the militants’ supply lines, and make work easier for our brothers on the southern and south-western fronts.
We think it’s odd this mission appeared only now, a whole month after the Mosul operation began. ISIS militants were able to easily move between its capital and Deir-es-Zor all this time. Along the well-known logistical chain of which the desert-bound town of Tel Afar is a key link. After observing Hashd al-Shabi forward units for three days, we finally understood where the fantastic reports coming from Iraqi headquarters which daily report the liberation of dozens of towns, originate.
“We’ll kill them all”
We drive around a tall hill–only yesterday, before the offensive, it was dotted with troops watching the desert horizon. There was even a bed on the very hilltop. Now it’s empty, except for a V-shaped frame from a car bomb. We saw similar sights on Peshmerga positions. It would seem that the physics of the explosion does this to the steel structure of a pick-up truck. We roll over an earthen embankment–what used to be the front line–and raise desert dust in pursuit of the gun truck columns racing ahead. We stop by a destroyed Humvee at an intersection–its front wheels and part of the hood were torn off by an explosion. Doors are wide open–no blood inside, the vehicle absorbed the blast. We move forward and the one of KP reporters yells “Stop!” which sends chills down one’s spine, the Shia driver understands and hits the brakes. Everyone instantly realizes that the next home-made mine is sticking out from under the dust only 15 meters from our vehicle, an ordinary minivan.
Ten minutes later, having caught up to the “tachanka” column, we find ourselves on the front edge of the offensive. Another empty village, taken without battle–no trace of fighting at all. ISIS simply abandoned this village as it did dozens of others. There is no sense in holding on to dozens of tiny settlements that could be quickly surrounded. There usually were no more than 5-7 militants per village. When faced with danger, they simply get into their truck and leave, thus inflating coalition statistics.
We’re sitting under the awning of a typical Iraqi house and take photos of an armored bulldozer building an earthen embankment. There are gun trucks and people in black uniforms, and every few minutes there’s incoming fire of various calibers.
–They now realized they are being cut off and will be surrounded. Therefore many are attempting to break out of Mosul into Syria, –we’re told by a Martyrs Brigade fighter. –But we won’t let them leave, we’ll kill them all. Every single one.
Two mortar bombs land nearby without a whistling sound announcing their arrival and explode with a strange sound. They are of very light caliber which means the enemy is very close. The dust-covered soldiers are not bothered by this in the least, as they continue to nap in the shade. Officers get out their binoculars and scan the gray-yellow horizon. Then someone shouts “Sayara mufahaha!”
A vehicle is approaching rapidly from ISIS-held territory. Drivers and gunners jump into their gun trucks and move forward. But the “human torpedo” makes a wide arc and goes back where it came from–suicide drivers don’t attack random targets but look for something high-value. On the other hand, a high-value target can defend itself so that the “super-weapon” is losing its former effect with every passing day.
The smoke of civilization
The last thing we see on this day of the war is the deep bed of a river that dried out a long time ago. This canyon conceals trucks, trailers, and tractors with refugees from the liberated villages. They are receiving food and water. Handfuls of rice and tomato sauce. People are poor, peasants. The refugees are frightened and taciturn.
An Iraqi officer with packs of cigarettes in his hands appears, which provokes a brawl. In ISIS, a package cost $25-30, or 30 cane blows–not clear which was worse. The men are assembled at the bottom of the canyon and made to squat. An elder in a traditional costume ascends the riverbank and says:
–If you have weapons, give it up! Nothing will happen to you!
In response there is heavy silence, with choking smoke from cheap cigarettes wafting over the crowd, a sign that these people have returned from the Middle Ages to our own sinful 21st century.