Make Mosul Great Again

Back on my own time and my own dime

On Dec. 30, 2016, I arrived in Mosul, Iraq and reunited with soldiers of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces I had not seen in nearly nine years. I returned as a retired soldier and aspiring war correspondent — while they have not stopped fighting the enemies of their country since I left.

After the ride with Sgt. Maj. Abdulwahab from Erbil, which included a stop for lunch at his uncle’s house and Friday prayers, I arrived at the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, or ICTS observation post on the eastern edge of Mosul. Upstairs waited Brig. Gen. Haider Al-Obeidi, my brother-in-arms from 2008 when I served as his adviser. Now my friend is a one-star general and the ground force commander for the push to clear Mosul from ISIS occupation.

With Haider was Col. Arkan, recently profiled in BuzzFeed as the key link between Iraqi forces on the ground and the coalition air power supporting them. Arkan was the first Iraqi since the 2003 invasion to graduate U. S. Army Ranger School. He is also Iraq’s leading air controller, and literally “calls the shots” when his guys need bombs on ISIS targets. He speaks perfect vernacular American English.

Iraqi officers and Mitch
Col. Arkan and Brig. Gen. Haider of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service are leading the planning and execution of the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State occupation. Mitch Utterback photo.

I also met Haider’s two bosses — ICTS generals well-known to anyone following their fight against ISIS. I thanked the generals for allowing me to join their unit. Like generals in any army, they were not overly excited to have a foreign journalist embedded with them at the height of their biggest battle to date. I emphasized I was there to work on my graduate thesis for my master’s in journalism, and to interview their soldiers from my perspective as former soldier.

Just before dark we departed the observation post for the safehouse — an abandoned home inside a walled compound with a controlled access road. Along the way, we stopped to take a close look at a dead ISIS suicide bomber, killed by a headshot from an ICTS soldier before he could detonate his vest. He looked North African the guys said. I thought so too.

His vest had triggers on both sides. Dual-primed perhaps to allow him to detonate if one arm was disabled. I planned for a similar contingency by placing tourniquets on both sides of my body armor — but I’m trying to live, and he was trying to die.

Cold, dead hand of an ISIS suicide bomber killed by a headshot from an Iraqi CTS soldier before he could detonate his vest. Mitch Utterback photo.

The kill shot to his right temple was fired by an M4 rifle with optical sights, and was administered in the exact manner these guys have trained. It was the only way to eliminate the threat before he could hit one of his triggers.

Arkan pointed out the booties, or shoe liners the guy wore. He thought it was to avoid static electricity buildup. I thought it was to keep his feet warm in his shoes — it’s below freezing here at night.

At the safehouse Haider and Arkan put me up in their room, which I’m sure is the nicest one. They even gave me my own Army cot. We have an electric heater running off generator power (as does the whole house), Wi-Fi and apparently, the satellite TV bill is still being paid because we have a television with Iraqi and Middle Eastern channels. It’s interesting to be laying in your rack at night watching TV and see your roommate on the news. Haider is literally a national hero and constantly in the media spotlight. He and other ICTS leaders are revered in Iraq like the Apollo astronauts were in the United States during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Bunk with blanket and black bags.
My corner of the room in the safehouse. Gear thanks to Kelty Tactical in Boulder, Colorado. Mitch Utterback photo.

We ate our evening meal sitting on the floor around the platter the cook brought in. Chicken, bread, sliced cucumber, roasted tomatoes and French fries made for a fine first dinner in the safehouse. I am grateful the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service travels with their own cooks.

Iraqi food on a platter.
The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service travels with their own cooks and eats very well. Mitch Utterback photo.

Arkan and Haider worked late after dinner. Arkan coordinated air support for his troops in contact with ISIS, and Haider prepared his briefing for battalion commanders on the next phase of clearing operations inside the city.

First morning in Mosul

I woke first the next morning to shower and shave. Yes — they also have hot and cold running water in the house. Once everyone was up, the cook brought bread, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. Another fine meal in a combat zone.

After breakfast, I put my helmet and body armor in Haider’s Humvee, while his gunner and driver readied their vehicle for the day. Someone handed me a small cup of coffee with chocolate and cinnamon.  As the sun rose, I sipped my cinnamon mocha and watched the troops prepping their vehicles and equipment. I thought, “Does it get any better than this?” Those of you who’ve served know exactly what I mean.

Military vehicles at sunrise.
An ICTS soldier performs pre-combat checks on his vehicle prior to departure from the safehouse. Mitch Utterback photo.

One last thing before we mounted up — I provided Arkan my next-of-kin notification information as he’d requested. These guys are expert at planning for all contingencies.

We rolled to the observation post, dropped Arkan off, and then headed into Mosul’s recently liberated areas so Haider could meet with and brief his subordinate commanders on the next phase of the battle. After briefing his lead element — the 1st Battalion, we walked the streets of Mosul without helmets or vests so Haider and other Iraqi officers could meet, speak with, and encourage citizens. Not far behind, the Humvees trailed in a slow, rumbling convoy.

Iraqi vehicles.
As Brig. Gen. Haider and his men walked the streets, their vehicles trailed closely behind. Mitch Utterback photo.

Once Haider completed his mission for the morning, we returned to our vehicles and slowly drove out of the densely populated neighborhoods of East Mosul. As we passed, children who’d been required to give the ISIS salute of a raised index finger for years, now smiled and flashed the two-finger victory sign to the men in the black Humvees. Gunners waved and returned the gesture. It was cool.

Upon return to the safehouse compound, Haider and Arkan stepped out to brief the generals on their mission analysis for the next phase. Critical to the plan is the protection of the civilian population. Mosul’s citizens can’t leave their homes until the Iraqi forces are literally on the same street. ISIS keeps civilians hostage in their neighborhoods as human shields, which restricts the ICTS use of firepower. Citizens literally must run with white flags through a firefight to escape from ISIS once Iraqi forces are close enough.

Reducing risk to civilians is a focus of the operation to liberate Mosul I’ve heard from every soldier.

More to follow.

Up to the sniper line

Ruined city street in Mosul

“OK Saidi, we have to run one at a time across this area.” The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service major said. “There are Daesh snipers who can see us.”

So just like you see in the movies, we crossed the street in a crouched run (but not a sprint — never run faster than your hosts) and entered a courtyard on the other side. No shots were fired.

Col. Arkan was checking on the most forward-deployed of all the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service units inside Mosul — the Basra Battalion. I had served with some of them in Basra in early 2008 and it was nice to see old teammates from the battle the Iraqis call, “The Charge of the Knights.”

Arkan brought the ICTS communications officer to inspect a cache of ISIS radio and electronics equipment in a building that had formerly been a Christian charity clinic.

Ruined hallway
The ISIS commo bunker was mostly a pile of rubble on the floors above the basement. Mitch Utterback photo.

We ducked below courtyard walls and under window wells to reach the stairwell, and climbed down its blasted remains using exposed rebar as hand holds. Scattered in every room on the ground floor we found radios, chargers, power amplifiers, cables, servers, wiring and antennas. ISIS had captured much of it, but we wondered if the Cisco servers still in original shipment packaging were less than two years old — meaning ISIS has ordered them after they took Mosul.

Radio equipment scattered in room
Strewn throughout the rooms were many types of communication and electronics equipment. Mitch Utterback photo.

ISIS is buying other communication gear and keeping accurate logs of their purchases (ICTS has a stack of captured financial records they are still analyzing). ISIS was also carefully documenting to whom they issued equipment. ICTS found stacks of blank receipts ISIS used to record who got what gear. They were obviously planning to keep the Caliphate and keep track of their stuff.

And yes, we were concerned and careful about booby traps as we searched.

We reversed our route up and climbed out of the communication warehouse, crossed the same sniper engagement areas and returned to the Humvees.

Arkan and the guys then stopped at a large, burned out house — the torching of it a sign it had been used by ISIS before they fled. Nothing of immediate value was found, but a story about the house was waiting for us across the street.

Burned room
Formerly ISIS-occupied home in Mosul, torched after they fled the approaching Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service. Mitch Utterback photo.

An ICTS soldier knocked on the gate of the neighbor, and we were invited into their front courtyard to sit, drink chai, and hear what had happened. Three middle-aged men and three young men told us their version of events.

The house across from them was owned by an Iraqi government official. When ISIS came, he and his family fled the city. Their house was then occupied by a doctor and his five sons — all sympathetic to ISIS. According to our hosts, the five sons fought for ISIS. When ICTS forces took East Mosul, the doctor and his sons fled and set fire to the house. The guys we were drinking chai with didn’t know where they were now.

We departed, and three questions came to mind.

First, how much of what we just heard could be believed? These guys had a nice house and all looked like military aged males to me. They could just as easily have also been occupying a house and keeping their ISIS sympathies to themselves. Second, I wondered where the original owners of the burned-out house were now — or if they were still alive.  Finally, I thought about the ISIS-sympathizing doctor, an anesthesiologist, and his five sons — and hoped some of my Iraqi friends would be interacting with them soon if they were still in Mosul.

Coming up next: Reunion with Brig. Gen. Abbas Al-Jubouri and embed with his unit — the Emergency Response Division as they liberate the southeast side of Mosul.

The Emergency Response Division, The other heroes of Mosul – Part I

Back at the Counter Terrorism Service safehouse in eastern Mosul after a long day visiting front-line troops, I sat on the floor for dinner with Brig. Gen. Haider and Col. Arkan. Arkan’s phone rang. He answered and spoke. He used the term, “Saidi,” which means “sir.” He must have been talking to a general. He was.

“Mitch, that was General Abbas,” Arkan said.

I’d been in touch with Brig. Gen. Abbas al-Jubouri to work out the details of also joining up with his unit. He was the former commander of the Hilla SWAT, a 500-man Ministry of the Interior direct action force that was advised by U.S. Army Special Forces for many years.  And like Haider, I considered him an Iraqi brother from my deployment there during the military surge of 2007.

Brig. Gen. Abbas was now the ground force commander for the Ministry of Interior’s most elite strike force – the Emergency Response Division, or ERD. The ERD, alongside the Counter Terrorism Service, are Iraq’s tip of the spear in the fight to liberate Mosul from ISIS occupation. Somehow I’d been fortunate enough during my only Iraq deployment years before to personally advise the two Iraqi officers now leading the daily battle inside Mosul.

Mitch and friends
The author, Brig. Gen. Abbas al-Jubouri and Fox News Correspondent Oliver North in Hilla, Iraq in December 2007. Mitch Utterback photo.

“General Abbas wants you to link up with him tomorrow – they are pushing up from the south and are seeing a lot of combat,” Arkan said.

“We don’t have anything major going on for a few days, so it would be a good time to go over to the ERD,” Arkan added.

Details were worked out between me, Brig. Gen. Abbas and Col. Arkan. The plan was to drive me to an Iraqi National Police checkpoint and wait there with a Counter Terrorism Service soldier. Someone from the ERD would come pick me up – literally a handoff from one unit to another.

I changed out of my black Counter Terrorism Service fatigues and donned the camouflage uniform of the ERD. We departed the safehouse and drove to a busy checkpoint along a main road in eastern Mosul – and waited. And waited.

A westerner in uniform, sitting in a pickup truck with an Iraqi soldier is an oddity anywhere in Iraq – and especially at a police checkpoint in Mosul. During my wait, policemen came over to ask us who we were and what we were doing. My driver explained, and I joined in with my basic Arabic. Mentioning who I was going to see provoked the same reaction Obi-Wan Kenobi did with his, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” comment.

It was obvious the national policeman knew who General Abbas was. My status as his former adviser and friend increased my “wasta” with the police. Suddenly I was their guest at the checkpoint and Iraqi hospitality was in full form.

My wait ended after a few hours when the general’s driver appeared at the checkpoint. I bade farewell to new friends and headed towards the front lines in the al-Intasar district of southeastern Mosul.

We drove out through rolling desert terrain until we reentered Mosul from the southeast. My first impression – one I told myself to remember – was that of an ambulance driver washing the blood off his stretcher using someone’s garden hose. There was too much blood pouring down the street from the wet stretcher for that person to have survived I thought.

We continued our drive through the blast-strewn streets while Iraqi helicopters made gun runs overhead. Since we were in a civilian vehicle, I wondered but didn’t ask the driver how the helos knew not to target us.

The safehouse location seemed to be avoiding the driver. He was lost. We drove down street after street, some blocked with smoking car bomb wreckage (which he pointed to and said “see-yara,” meaning suicide car bomb).

The streets were deserted except for members of the ERD still going house to house searching for stay-behind ISIS fighters. The driver asked the troops where General Abbas’ safehouse was. Each gave different directions.

So I’m in southeastern Mosul, my driver is lost, he can’t get his bearings, smoking wreckage is in the streets, helicopters are making gun runs overhead, small arms fire is echoing all around us. I occupy my mind with a few “what ifs” and play it cool. My driver is scared.

I asked myself a few questions:

Question: What am I going to do if an ISIS fighter pops out of a house and shoots at us?

Answer: Pick up the driver’s rifle next to my seat and shoot back.

Question: What am I going to do if an ISIS fighter steps out and aims an RPG at us?

Answer: Yell “RPG!” as I’m opening my door and roll out of the pickup before he fires.

Question: What am I going to do if I see an ISIS suicide car bomb racing towards us?

Answer: Yell, “See-yara!” to the driver, open and roll out the door and run behind/into the nearest cover, cover my ears and open my mouth to equalize the blast pressure.

Those visualized responses to crisis are called “battle drills” or “immediate action drills” in the military. Not much different than the flight attendant demonstrations you ignore on every commercial flight you’ve ever been on.

My driver eventually got his bearings and mumbled “Ilhamdulliah” (Thank God) as we approached the safehouse. But the general wasn’t there.

The driver called him. General Abbas said he was leaving the front lines, and to bring me to the division headquarters where he was headed to brief his boss, Maj. Gen. Thamer, commander of the ERD.

We picked our way back through the streets – more easily this time, and headed to the headquarters in the desert. We’d driven right past this spot earlier, where I’d noticed artillery, lots of security and American MRAPs parked in a neat row.

Inside the compound I was escorted into General Thamer’s office and introduced to him. In the room next door, U.S. advisers from the 101st Airborne Division provided aerial surveillance via drones, and passed what they saw through interpreters to the ERD. This allowed the Iraqis to see around the next block and beyond inside the city.

A few minutes later, General Abbas stepped into the office and a reunion almost nine years in the making took place.

Reunion with Gen. Abbas
Brig. Gen. Abbas al-Jubouri and the author meeting for the first time since April 2008. Mitch Utterback photo.

We man-hugged, laughed, asked about family and old Army buddies. I told him how much I enjoyed meeting his wife and kids (they had me over for Christmas Eve dinner in Erbil while he was leading from the front in Mosul), and how big his boys were now.

He pardoned himself to study his tablet computer and think about the next day’s fight, and what he was going to tell Maj. Gen. Thamer in a few minutes.

Gen. Abbas studying tablet computer
Brig. Gen. Abbas reviewing the map on his tablet computer prior to briefing his commander. Mitch Utterback photo.

I watched as several Iraqi ERD and National Police officers stood around a map of southern Mosul projected on a screen. All gestured and spoke at the same time, offering their opinions of how the next day’s clearing operation should progress. Gen. Abbas spoke last. Everyone knew it would be him leading the fight in the morning. A master of the art of war and politics, he took a bit of everyone’s advice and briefed his plan. It was of course unanimously accepted.

It was dark when we left the headquarters and drove back into Mosul. The Humvee driver knew the route better than the ERD trooper who’d picked me up earlier that day. We passed multiple checkpoints – manned by Iraqi troops burning tires or trash to keep warm.

General Abbas led me into his safehouse. It was a private home he’d asked to temporarily occupy. The owners happily moved in with family next door. They were honored a national hero was staying in their house. I’m sure in 20 years, the family will still be telling the story of when General Abbas slept here!

The ERD ran a generator outside providing limited power for the house. Just enough for the ceiling lights and to charge the multiple phones and computers now used by Iraqi troops. A cook worked in the small kitchen and prepared a very satisfying meal. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands.

Dinner with ERD
Dinner on the floor with Brig. Gen. Abbas at the ERD safehouse. Mitch Utterback photo.

General Abbas explained we were in the al-Intasar district of southeastern Mosul which was liberated the day before. In the morning I’d be joining them for the push into the al-Mithak district just to the west. I asked the general how far we were from ISIS positions.

“We are 800 meters from enemy lines Abu Mustafa,” he said – calling me by the nickname he’d given me in 2007.

“It will be a short drive to the front lines in the morning. You should sleep soon. We will leave here at zero seven thirty,” he said.

I stayed up and visited with him as the other troops in the safehouse turned in for the night. I made small talk about his family and inquired if he would be talking to them later. He said he would. I asked him to give them my regards and bade him goodnight.

My room was one of the bedrooms in the house. It was cold and I could see my breath in there. I plugged in my transformer and charged camera batteries and my phone. Brushed my teeth with water from my Camelbak. Put on my track suit to sleep in, which is the off-duty uniform for every Iraqi soldier I’ve ever met. I dozed off pretty quickly.

I woke later to the sound of heavy bombardment of what I assumed were enemy positions. Most likely it was the international coalition at work with their advanced surveillance capabilities, prepping the battlefield for the morning attack by Iraqi forces. As I laid there, I could hear jets dropping bombs, far-off artillery firing and the occasional firefight much closer to the safehouse.

Throughout the night the house shook with the sound of ISIS targets being hit. I was able to sleep through it pretty well – knowing every boom was meant for the bad guys.

I woke first the next morning in order to prepare my kit and do personal hygiene. Years and years of Army life had ingrained in me to never be the guy who’s not ready in time and delays the kickoff of the mission.

The ERD had a propane burner heating water in the closed shower room of the house. I held my breath in this gas chamber and dipped a canteen cup of hot water from the large tub and went to the nearby sink. Using my headlamp for light, I shaved and took a whore bath, reminiscing about bathing from a canteen cup in Ranger School decades before.

I came out of my room with all my kit ready to roll to find the general and his guys just sitting down to the first of many, many cups of hot sugary tea that day. Breakfast was Iraqi bread, hard boiled eggs, fresh vegetables and cheese. A damn fine breakfast for being only 800 meters from the front lines. I felt the pull of history (or maybe just the movie Patton) and wondered how many armies, how many millennia back in time have done just this – sat down together for breakfast before heading into battle.

I crammed myself into the backseat of the Humvee behind General Abbas, and once his turret gunner called down he was ready, we rolled to the front lines.

It takes less than five minutes to drive 800 meters. We parked, stepped out and went immediately inside a building for cover. I couldn’t help but think as I stepped out of the Humvee… “Game on!”

Departing for the front lines
Ready for the short commute to the front lines. Mitch Utterback photo.

Coming up next: The liberation of Hayy al-Mithak

The Liberation of Hayy al-Mithak: ERD Part II

I followed General Abbas further into the building, away from the front rooms. We were at the forward command post of the ERD, and he was here to brief the subordinate commanders on the plan for the day.

A tray of hot tea came out of the kitchen and was passed around. Iraqis are never too far from their next cup of tea, and I was ready for another. I sipped mine, appreciating something hot in the cold, unheated house as I watched the general brief off this tablet computer. This was the same plan he’d run by Maj. Gen. Thamer the night before.

The plan called for the ERD to systematically move west one block at a time – killing ISIS in front of them and protecting civilians at the same time. This meant heavy weapons only after confirmation civilians were not being used as human shields by ISIS. Both the ERD and Counter Terrorism Service had a dual mission in Mosul – clear the city of ISIS occupation and simultaneously protect the civilian populace.

General Abbas emphasized the dual mission to his subordinate commanders at the conclusion of his briefing and walked outside. I followed.

“Abu Mustafa, stay close to me today. Be where I can always see you,” he said.

“Na’am Saidi!” (Yes sir!) I replied, snapping my best impression of an Iraqi salute to him. He smiled. It was the last time I saw him smile all day.

He moved to a courtyard in a house 150 meters from the ISIS positions and got on his radio, ensuring his orders were being carried out. He also checked in with Iraqi helicopter pilots who were flying overhead waiting for ISIS targets below. We watched as ERD troopers passed by, some smiling, some serious – preparing to go house to house in urban combat.

Moving up
ERD troopers preparing to go house to house to clear ISIS in the first day of the al-Mithak battle. Mitch Utterback photo.

As soon as the citizens of the al-Mithak district saw the ERD Humvees and troops in their neighborhood, they began a life and death trek to friendly lines – often with ISIS at one end of their street and the ERD at the other, with ERD holding fire and ISIS shooting to kill their escaping human shields.

Civilians in al-Mithak
An ERD trooper guides citizens towards safety as they flee ISIS. Mitch Utterback photo.

Under white flag, hundreds and hundreds of Moslawis (as the locals are known) moved towards the ERD troopers, who guided them away from the fighting. The flow of internally displaced persons continued throughout the day. Young families with children, the elderly, the disabled and widows fled their homes toward the ERD lines.

Civilians 2
ISIS regularly targets civlians in Mosul who flee toward government forces. Mitch Utterback photo.

In a house 150 meters away, three ISIS snipers fired at the ERD troops preparing to move against them. An ERD Humvee drove past me and stopped between two houses to give its turret-mounted recoilless rifle a clear shot.

I realized it was too late to put my earplugs in, so I opened my mouth to reduce blast wave pressure on my ears. I steadied my camera on the Humvee as the SPG-9 gunner readied his weapon. When he fired I felt my lungs rattle, and keeping my mouth open really did help my ears.

Iraq’s version of the bazooka, the SPG-9 recoilless rifle firing on ISIS snipers. Mitch Utterback photo.

Despite the shot by the recoilless rifle, ISIS was still putting effective fire on the ERD from the house. General Abbas got on the radio to the Iraqi Air Force and requested a helicopter gunship make a few runs on it.

They did – and so close to us – you could hear the tinkling of the expended brass hitting the ground.

Gun run
Gun run by an Iraqi Air Force Mi-28 helicopter gunship against ISIS snipers targeting the ERD. Mitch Utterback photo.

Still ISIS fired from the house – which like many Iraqi homes is built like a fort from concrete reinforced with rebar.

Time for an airstrike. A “danger close” airstrike.

General Abbas got on the radio and passed his target through the close air support system. In less time than I thought it would take, he said an F-16 would be inbound with a bomb for the house. He didn’t specify whose F-16 it was.

He got on his unit radio and told his commanders to tell their troops to get their heads down. He monitored the air support frequency on the other radio.

“Aircraft inbound,” he said.

“Weapon release – ten seconds,” he said.

The 500-pound laser-guided bomb ripped through the air in what sounded like an offset to our right, and struck the house, killing the three ISIS snipers. The ERD did not celebrate – they just moved forward. I followed General Abbas to his Humvee and we pushed up another block. The day followed a cycle of combat – street fighting, helicopter gun runs, airstrikes, move another block. All the while – ensuring civilians were not in the area, or being used as human shields.

Sniper position
Three ISIS snipers killed in this house by an airstrike called in by General Abbas. Mitch Utterback photo.

I was impressed with the Iraqis’ use of helicopters and jets to hit enemy targets. Last time I was in Iraq, the U.S. was doing that for them. Now they were integrating aerial attack to support their ground forces better than most western armies.

A few other things stood out – small things only those of us who’d been there before would notice and be impressed with.

  • When an armored personnel carrier with huge wheels got a flat tire, the Iraqis called for a wrecker – which quickly arrived and replaced the tire – putting the APC back in the fight. (This was something in 2007 they would have looked at me to help them with. Now it was a reflex action known as “battle damage and recovery.”)
  • An armored bulldozer used to plow berms and block roads from ISIS suicide car bombers with a malfunctioning blade piston was repaired using pieces from a nearby disabled bulldozer. This was done only 200 meters from the front lines – and then driven right back into the ISIS machine gun fire to plow more berms.
  • Around lunchtime, a smiling ERD trooper pulled up to General Abbas’ forward command post in a pickup truck with a bed full of hot lunch – fasooli in take-out containers! This seems minor, but to me it was indicative of how advanced the Iraqi forces now were in maintaining and sustaining combat operations.

There were no U.S. or coalition advisers telling them when and how to do any of the above.

Lunch in the field with ERD
Hot chow in a combat zone. Fasooli – white beans in tomato sauce over rice. Mitch Utterback photo.

Not long after lunch a strange vehicle rolled up to the command post.

“WTF?” in Arabic was being said by General Abbas as the ERD Humvee stopped in the street with what looked like a crashed model airplane in the gunner turret.

The ERD had recovered two very large ISIS drones and were going to bring them back to division headquarters. I asked the general if his government was doing anything with them.

“No Mustafa, we are taking these back to give to the advisers. They want them,” he said.

I climbed onto the Humvee to take a closer look. I saw two complete radio controlled planes. Big ones. No evidence of cameras or weapon systems – just model planes like you’d see being flown by a hobbyist in a big open area.

“Daesh (using the Arabic acronym for ISIS) is making planes to drop bigger bombs on us,” General Abbas said.

“We need to watch for tie-yara from them,” he said.

Tie-yara is the Arabic shorthand for drone, and ISIS was already arming quadcopters with 40mm rifle grenades in early January. Seeing a drone was always a bad thing – it meant they were dropping grenades, or worse, providing directions and filming the final approach of a suicide car bomber.

Drone in Humvee
Two homemade ISIS radio-controlled airplanes recovered by the ERD being taken to coalition advisers. Mitch Utterback photo.

By late afternoon the ERD had made significant progress through the al-Mithak district. One of General Abbas’ subordinate commanders called over the radio to ask him to come to a street where the citizens had stayed in their homes and tied white cloths out front to signify friendlies inside.

We drove over, parked, got out and walked. The response from the citizens was overwhelming.

Every home on this street had some kind of white flag. Every family was standing in front of their open gate, greeting the ERD, as well as the “Amreeki” who was walking around taking pictures. I could tell the ERD was soaking in the gratitude as an antidote to the pain and suffering of the citizens they’d witnessed at the hands of ISIS.

Out came the tea. Out came the proud parents with small children. Out came the kids with hand-drawn Iraqi flags to show the ERD.

Freedom Flags
Children proudly display handmade Iraqi flags to their liberators after more than two years of ISIS occupation. Mitch Utterback photo.

And out came a house full of what to me looked like MAMs – military aged males. They were smiling, waving and speaking English. They called me over to talk.

“Mister, where have you been?” one of them said.

“We have been waiting a very long time for this day of freedom!” he added.

“Take picture with us?” he asked.

So I did, and couldn’t help but wonder if the Iraqi National Security Service shouldn’t be paying a visit to all these bearded young men soon to ask them what they’d been up to for the last couple years.

Day of Freedom
Young men celebrate their freedom on the day of liberation from ISIS, “Yom al-Hurriya.” Mitch Utterback photo.

They spoke to me in English, and I replied with my basic Arabic explanation of who I was and what I was doing in Mosul.

“I am a friend of General Abbas.”

“I was in the U.S. Army.”

“I was his adviser.”

“I’m retired from the Army.”

“I’m studying journalism to be a reporter, a correspondent.”

I repeated those lines at every house General Abbas stopped at to greet citizens. By the end of the block, everyone knew the American said he was a friend of the general and retired from the Army.  I would come to learn a few days later the truth was too boring to some I met in Mosul, when I became the subject of fake news on an Arabic news website. More on that later.

The general made a final check on where his units would be defending from that night before we departed for the safehouse. The ERD advanced during the day, and at night they hunkered down in empty houses – posting guards, snipers and observers for airstrikes. This allowed them to rest and keep the pressure on any ISIS fighters who showed themselves in the darkness. The general told his commanders he’d see them first thing in the morning to brief them on any changes to the plan.

The general made one last stop – to the first battle position of the day where he was leaving a detachment of his troops. It was a tall house on a hill that provided good observation all around. It was about 7 p.m. local time.

We heard several booms.

“One hundred twenty millimeter mortars fired by Daesh,” General Abbas said.

His radio crackled with ERD troopers calling in reports. ISIS was firing on escaping civilians with mortars and snipers. There were many wounded. ERD was putting them in their Humvees. They were coming to the general’s location. General Abbas called for all 11 of his ambulances to report to his current location immediately.

And so began my eyewitness to the evil of ISIS, and the unspeakable horror of a parent whose child has been killed before their eyes.

ERD Humvees carrying wounded civilians raced down the road, under fire from ISIS and around the corner to the command post. It was now a casualty collection point under General Abbas’ supervision. Troopers took the wounded from inside the Humvees and carried them to waiting ambulances.

An ERD trooper rushes a child mortally wounded by an ISIS mortar attack to a military ambulance. Mitch Utterback photo.

An ERD trooper opened the back door of a Humvee and a father carrying his 4-year-old daughter climbed out. He was wearing a white sweater. She was limp and unresponsive, wrapped in a blanket. Then I saw two things I’ll always remember – the look of horrific anguish on his face, and the obscenely large, jagged piece of shrapnel from an ISIS mortar stuck in his little girl’s head.

He wailed as he ran to the waiting ambulance. ERD troopers assisted, some fathers of small children themselves. A wave of rage and hate ran through the ERD who’d witnessed the scene. I felt it too.

After the flow of wounded civilians ended (there were at least 20 killed and injured by that ISIS mortar attack), we mounted up and drove towards the field hospital to check on the wounded and pay our respects to the dead.

There was blood on the ground where the ambulance doors opened. Blood on the steps where people were carried inside. Blood on the floor in puddles under the stands where the stretchers were placed. ERD medics worked with light from headlamps to stabilize patients as well as they could – before civilian ambulances took away the still-living to a higher level of care down the road in Bartella.

The father in the white sweater was in shock. No longer white, it was soaked red with his daughter’s blood. She was on a blanket on the porch, a bandage over her head wound. She lay next to three other dead children – all with eyes partially open. All killed by ISIS only an hour before.

I removed my helmet and knelt over the four dead children. ERD troopers joined me. Some of them said a prayer in Arabic. I managed “Fi Aman Allah” (May God protect you) in a low voice.

General Abbas spent the next hour directing airstrikes as his men called in ISIS targets to him over the radio. It was cathartic for him – and the rest of us.

He called to me in the dark.

“Abu Mustafa, yalla ruuh!” he yelled. (Abu Mustafa, Let’s go!)

“Na’am Saidi. Lil baytak?” I yelled back. (Yes sir. To your house?)

I saw him start walking in the dark. I followed for a short walk to the safehouse. I’d not realized we were so close.

We got out of our kit, changed into our tracksuits and sat down for dinner. Other ERD officers joined us. It was a quiet meal, and I wondered if they were thinking about what we’d seen a short time ago. No one stayed up much longer after dinner. I said goodnight, asked the general to give my regards to his family, and went to my room. Inside I concentrated on charging electronics, making notes and putting the image of the father and his daughter out of my mind.

The nighttime bombardment against ISIS resumed. It was comforting. I slept better than I thought I would.

Coming up next: Snipers and Suicide Car Bombs

ERD Part III: Snipers and SVBIEDs

The next two days with General Abbas were a collage of war memories.

We started the morning in a sniper standoff from a rooftop, with ERD snipers drawing down on an ISIS sniper in the minaret of a mosque 800 meters away. Neither the ERD nor the ISIS sniper took any shots at each other. More importantly, the ISIS sniper didn’t take any shots at ERD troops on the ground or fleeing civilians (like they’d done the day before.)

ERD Snipers
ERD snipers maintain overwatch on an ISIS sniper in a mosque 800 meters away. Mitch Utterback photo.

General Abbas used the rooftop to see the battle and control more airstrikes in support of his men’s forward advance. He spoke to an Iraqi liaison with the coalition over his Harris radio, and once again had jets overhead on short notice.

Like U.S. battlefield commanders, the radio was truly his weapon. With it he could attack ISIS from the air, bring ambulances to the wounded and move his troops to where they were needed most. I never saw him carrying a weapon, wearing a helmet or body armor.

Controlling CAS
General Abbas directing airstrikes by radio – the ERD’s deadliest weapon in his hands. Mitch Utterback photo.

We moved again immediately after an airstrike directed by General Abbas killed nine ISIS fighters. I had to wonder if he knew his enemy body count. I didn’t ask him – because I was counting for him – and he was at 12 enemy killed in the last 24 hours.

Speaking of dead ISIS fighters, when we were moving after the airstrike I kept count of how many of them I could see. They were everywhere – like garbage in the streets. Ignored and avoided (except by very large and well-fed feral cats), they lay scattered on streets and sidewalks, open fields, in building rubble and in courtyards. On that drive I counted 11 ½ dead ISIS fighters. Yep, 11 ½.

Dead guys
ISIS fighters killed by a Hellfire missile. Mitch Utterback photo.

We were within small arms range of ISIS on the next rooftop we moved to.

The ERD stayed tucked below the walls and built a small observation bunker for General Abbas – who continued directing airstrikes. I could see the troops were tired and bored up there with him, as he was getting all the action. So the next most interesting thing for them to occupy themselves with was me.

“Abu Mustafa, where are you from?” the guy with the big mustache asked in Arabic.

“I’m from America, the state of Colorado,” I said in Arabic.

“Sadiqi Facebook?” he asked, handing me his phone with the app open.

I typed my name and “friended” myself and handed the phone back to him.

“Selfie?” he asked.

So we did that too. Then I noticed other troopers slinking over to link up with me on social media and take pictures. And I’m not kidding – while bullets were whizzing overhead.

Seriously – they make a whizzing sound when fired from a distance and come close enough to you. I thought, these guys are crawling across a roof under sporadic enemy fire to be friends on Facebook.

Rooftop friends
Making friends on the roof while General Abbas directs airstrikes. Mitch Utterback photo.


I moved off the roof and my new retinue followed. I repeated the process with several of them. Soon guys were coming up the stairs, having noticed on their phones that a buddy was now friends with me.

More friends made, more photos taken. I felt like a baseball card, and was happy to take their minds off the war for a few minutes.

Eventually General Abbas ran out of enemy targets – his forward elements were so far into the district now it was time for him to move closer so he could get an idea of where his guys were asking for airstrikes.

As we stepped into the street in front of the house an elderly neighbor brought over tea. He had been a general in Saddam’s army many years before he said, and was glad to see government troops on his street.

Chai general
Tea service in the street from a former general in Saddam’s army. Mitch Utterback photo.

Down the block a young entrepreneur was hawking cigarettes. General Abbas called him over. The young man said today was the first day in over two years anyone had been able to buy cigarettes because ISIS had outlawed smoking. He was enjoying the liberation of this area to make some money for his family he told us. General Abbas made a point to tell me how this one street vendor was already a sign things were returning to normal in Mosul.

Cigarette vendor
First cigarette sales in Mosul in over two years – smoking banned during ISIS occupation. Mitch Utterback photo.

Before we departed, families came out to thank the ERD and meet the general. Kids by the dozens came on their own. All were eager to show the “V” for victory symbol with their fingers. For the previous two years, they were required to raise their right index finger in the ISIS salute any time one of their fighters passed by.

V for victory
V for victory instead of the ISIS salute. Mitch Utterback photo.

Thankfully, the day ended without a repeat of the horror of the previous evening.

The next morning I came out of my room ready to eat breakfast and head to the vehicle, but I noticed we had company.

An elderly woman had come to ask for food for her and her family. She sat on the floor near the heater, telling the general how poor they were and how little food they had. He told the cook to prepare a bag for her, and the cook placed bread, eggs, oranges and bottled water in the sack. I went into my room and grabbed a handful of multigrain fig bars from Costco.

She thanked me with a “Shukran Saidi.” (Thank you sir.)

Old lady
One of the many citizens grateful for the presence of the ERD in Mosul. Mitch Utterback photo.

She left, we ate and rolled back to the front lines. General Abbas was in a good mood.

“Mustafa, we are going to see the battalion that was the Hilla SWAT,” he said.

Hilla SWAT was the 500-man strike force he commanded in 2007 when I was his adviser. I happened to be wearing the Hilla SWAT patch on my arm – the one he’d personally given me back then. Now they were a separate battalion within one of the brigades of the ERD.

We stepped out of the Humvee to a happy reunion. He’d not seen some of these men in days, and I’d not seen them since April 2008. I immediately recognized Captain Hadi, one of the bravest SWAT troopers in the unit. He had a long scar down his face that made him look meaner than he was – but combined with his fearlessness, he was right out of central casting for a war hero.

Capt Hadi
Brig. Gen. Abbas, Col. Amar, and Capt. Hadi at the morning briefing. Mitch Utterback photo.

Suddenly, one block over we heard an immense eruption of gunfire. The troops were firing on ISIS in the open. I followed the general over to where he could get a better idea of what was happening. Then a drone appeared overhead, and the gunfire went skyward as the troops tried to shoot it down yelling the alarm for drone – “Tie-yara!”

We moved into a courtyard with some overhead cover to avoid the drone if it was armed. This one wasn’t we learned seconds later – it was directing and filming a suicide car bomb heading towards the ERD.

I later reviewed my video footage from that moment. I had captured the look on a troopers face as he recognized an armored ISIS suicide car bomb racing through the nearby intersection. “See-yara” is what the Iraqis call them. The U.S. military calls them SVBIEDs – suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, and pronounced, “Ess-vee-bids.”

BD One
Recognizing what just raced through the intersection – seconds away from detonation of an ISIS suicide car bomb. Mitch Utterback photo.

The SVBIED was targeting an ERD Humvee parked at the next intersection. It struck and sent a large, roiling grey mushroom cloud into the sky. General Abbas got on the radio to get an update. He was told the vehicle was empty – which made him happy.

Smoke plume
Smoke plume rising from the suicide car bomb. Mitch Utterback photo.

I followed him to as close as he wanted to get to the burning vehicle. It was full of ammunition that was “cooking off” and whizzing down the street. Once all the ammo was burned or exploded, we moved in closer to have a look.

Remains of an armored ISIS suicide car bomb in the foreground while an ERD Humvee burns next to it. Mitch Utterback photo.

The remains of the SVBIED merged with the burning hulk of the Humvee. On a nearby house, globs of the suicide bomber were splattered on the wall, and in a heap of goo on the ground below. I took a close look – to stare at the evil.

He was fat and like all ISIS fighters – bearded. He’d been wearing a suicide vest that didn’t detonate.  On the ground were the remains of his folding stock AK-47. He had been a triple threat to Iraqi forces as were all ISIS SVBIED drivers – the car bomb itself, the suicide vest they wore, and the AK-47 they carried. No matter what, these guys planned to die somehow and take out Iraqi forces with them.

As the Humvee burned we learned there had been a friendly casualty. An Iraqi National Policeman was standing 30 meters from the explosion and was killed instantly. We stopped at his body to pay our respects.

“Mustafa, you met him yesterday. He was the lieutenant I told to move the vehicle,” General Abbas said.

We moved into a nearby house to reassure residents and avoid more drones. The general was visibly shaken at the loss of the policeman backing up his unit’s advance.

Sad realization
General Abbas and staff after paying respects to the policeman killed by the suicide car bomb. Mitch Utterback photo.

We stayed for a while, drank tea and spoke to the children. I noticed the general and his troops always sought the comfort of speaking to children. It helped them recover from the horrors of war they were constantly experiencing. I too felt better – by just watching the ERD interact with kids. Everyone smiled.

Smiling children are key to the morale of Iraqi forces fighting ISIS in Mosul. Mitch Utterback photo.

Later that day I received a text from Col. Arkan asking when I planned to return to the Counter Terrorism Service. I told him I thought I could the next day, and I would get myself back to them.

That evening I told General Abbas I’d be going to the CTS the next day. He understood and thanked me for joining him and telling the story of the ERD.

I told him I’d been talking to a medical NGO from the U.S. called NYC Medics, and that they were looking to come to Mosul to establish a trauma stabilization point to help civilians and Iraqi forces. They needed an Iraqi unit to be close to and protected by. I asked the general if he’d like a team of doctors and medics from the U.S. to join him if he could take care of them. He was grateful, and said to put them in touch with him, and that he would bring them into his perimeter.

This has since happened, and NYC Medics has been profiled for their heroic, lifesaving work many times in the media. Helping facilitate their embed with the ERD was my proudest accomplishment from the entire trip to Mosul.

The next day I stayed behind after breakfast as General Abbas rolled back to the front lines to continue the fight to liberate Mosul. He’s still at it, but now on the west side of the Tigris River in the densely packed Old City of Mosul. I keep up with him weekly on social media.

I had the same ERD driver who’d picked me up at the police checkpoint a few days earlier drive me all the way back to the CTS safehouse – this time skipping the handover at the checkpoint. I knew the way.

We halted at the CTS guard post on the road leading to the safehouse. I waved and told the guard I was General Haider’s friend and was going to his house. He recognized me and even knew the ERD driver!

“Maku Mushkela,” (No problem) he said.

Back at the safehouse I unpacked, changed out of the ERD uniform, donned the CTS uniform and waited for Haider and Arkan to return from their forward command post.

I noticed I wasn’t feeling so well and decided to take a nap. Might have been that glass of water I accepted the day before in the courtyard next to the suicide car bomb.

Coming up next: Back with the CTS