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 Special Forces 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.

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 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 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 Iraqi Special Forces 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 plan 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 SOF 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 cable 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 ICTF 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.

Journalistic Animation Critique

Unlabled map of Mosul, Iraq

Battle of Mosul – Every Six Hours

Here is an animated map showing the progress of Iraqi and Peshmerga forces against the ISIS-held city of Mosul. The animation shows activity every six hours from Oct. 16 to Nov. 1.

You first notice the audio – dramatic orchestral music accompanies the title slide and continues as the simple, multi-color map appears. Loud combat sound effects (machine gun fire, ricochets and explosions) announce the start of the battle and are synchronized with changing map graphics and information under the Major Events heading. The music continues to play under the combat sound effects. Although well-timed, the combat sound effects are a bit over the top and play for too long.

As the timeline moves forward in six-hour increments, flash updates continue to appear under the Major Events heading. They are literally flashes – and disappear much too fast. They should remain in the frame long enough to be read without having to wind back the timeline.

The three-color “enemy-friendly” map of Mosul changes continuously as the music and sound effects play. No legend is used (not even to identify Mosul), which would be helpful. Daily updates on Mosul from other sources are available and published online. The blog “Musings on Iraq” by Joel Wing provides good map data and a daily running estimate of the changing front lines.

Perhaps in an updated version of this animated map, the creators can refer to data like that produced by Joel Wing.

Watch closely in the south, in the Iraqi red areas, for what appear to be advances against ISIS blue territory. Can you see the graphic representation of the setbacks? Iraqi forces advance, turning areas pink. They solidify their gains and the area turns red. ISIS counterattacks – red turns light blue then dark blue. Listen as the soundtrack uses President Obama’s voiceover talking about “setbacks.”

This is a very clever use of audio, but requires a level of attention to detail to changes in the map – combined with active listening to the voiceover – to appreciate the fluidity of the front lines the creators are communicating to the viewer.

The presidential voiceover and other audio from news reports layered over the orchestral soundtrack reminds me of a radio hit from the early ‘70s called, “What the World Needs Now/Abraham, Martin and John,” by Tom Clay.

Watch the animation to the end to grasp the advances of Iraqi and Peshmerga forces towards Mosul – the grey area in top center with what we assume are roads depicted in yellow leading to it.

An effort better than I can match with the skills and time available I have now, but lacking in detail everyone with a smart phone expects from their maps these days.

Data visualization critique – Islamic State Infographic

Iraqi forces opened the campaign to liberate the city of Mosul from Islamic State occupation on Oct. 16, 2016. On the first full day of the battle, Islamic State’s Yaqeen Media Foundation produced a graphic representation of their purported successes. Yaqeen Media provided subsequent daily updates on ISIS operations using the same infographic template.

Infographic with details of Mosul battle from ISIS perspective
Day One infographic of the Mosul battle from Islamic State’s Yaqeen Media Foundation
Second day infographic
Mosul Day Two infographic from Yaqeen Media
Day Three
Mosul Day Three

At the end of the first 10 days of the Iraqi government’s campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS, Yaqeen Media released a “roll-up” of information.

First 10 days of Mosul battle

Before you read the detail in the visualization, perhaps you noticed the appealing colors, clever symbols and easy to follow organization. It could be something right out of USA Today. The layout and design pulls you in to learn more about what this data has to say.

Upon closer inspection, you wonder how reliable this information is. Every belligerent in a conflict puts out information favorable to their side and deleterious to their enemy. These are examples of propaganda in the form of an infographic. And as a form of propaganda, the information presents only one side — and in a time of war — is highly resistant to scrutiny.

Consider the difficulty of fact-checking any of this data.

By the 10th day of the battle, ISIS claimed to have conducted 63 martyr operations – suicide attacks.

Any way to check with ISIS to validate that info? No. It would be equally difficult to confirm those numbers with the Iraqi forces facing ISIS suicide attacks. They are spread across hundreds of kilometers around Mosul and are comprised of disparate groups who don’t share information with each other.

These products are worth examining for how they help us visualize data. Yaqeen media does a good job of providing insight into the chaos of war reporting, especially documenting changes over time.

That’s as far as we should take it though. To twist a phrase from our readings, the above infographics are not driven by facts — they are driven by fanaticism.

Online video critque

The Road to Fallujah. VICE NEWS photo by Wazer Jaff.

The Road to Fallujah by VICE NEWS

Prepare yourselves for a graphic, detailed look into Iraq’s war against Islamic State.

I selected this video to review a few days before it won first place in the Grand Format Television category at the 23rd Prix Bayeux-Calvados War Correspondent Awards in France. It was filmed over the course of four weeks last spring by VICE NEWS journalists Ayman Oghanna and Wazer Jaff.

There was a significant post-production effort by VICE when Ayman and Wazer came out of Iraq and brought their video and sound to London. What you see in this piece however, was shot only by Ayman and Wazer themselves — no one else. I asked Ayman if they had help and he said it was just the two of them.

I lack the videography vernacular to do anything more than a dilettante’s job critiquing or commenting on this piece. It is the most instructive video available to someone who wants to work as a MMJ or backpack journalist in a combat zone. Ayman and Wazer only had what could fit in the back seat of an Iraqi Special Forces Humvee when they were out shooting this stuff.

This is VICE NEWS, so the production values are high, and the content is incredibly well-suited for an emotional and compelling story. Nowhere else but here can you find 30 minutes of an insider view of the fight against Islamic State with VO and narration you can easily understand.

A note on English subtitles of the Iraqi Arabic — watch this video if you want to improve your Arabic. It’s the troops in contact, rapid-fire Arabic one needs to understand if you are serious about working in the Middle East.

Notice how well VICE uses Maj. Salam as a vehicle to drive the story. The close-up interview shows the stress of combat on his face, and throughout the video Ayman and Wazer do their best to hold cameras steady as they race in front of him while he walks, or as he addresses a crowd in the day or at night. Wazer uses a small white light to illuminate Ayman during a short narration on a humanitarian mission. In the daytime footage where Maj. Salam is calling out ISIS collaborators, notice Ayman with the DSLR camera in the background getting what appears to be tight shots to the men sitting on the ground.

In the firefight as they enter the city of Hit, notice Ayman’s narration into Wazer’s camera just a few feet from him in the back of the Humvee. Cutaways to extreme wide shots pan by as they film buildings or palm trees from the moving vehicle, then cut-ins bring us back inside the Humvee as they take enemy fire. Also notice how clean and steady the wide shot of the Iraqi tank firing from the front of the convoy appears compared to the views shot through the windows of the vehicle. Perhaps an externally mounted GoPro?

Bottom line – this is my definitive tutorial on how to shoot, narrate and edit a combat embed. I’ll be watching it repeatedly, as I’m sure lessons will continue to jump out at me as my knowledge of MMJ increases.

Cellphone coverage analysis

Iraqi Special Forces face suicide car bomb in Fallujah

Iraqi Special Forces faced an Islamic State group suicide car bomb earlier this summer in Fallujah

This not entirely raw cell phone video was taken from inside an Iraqi Special Forces Humvee during the battle to liberate Fallujah from Islamic State group control this summer. The video shows the point of view of the driver, and the cell phone was likely pressed against the bullet-resistant windshield.

You’ll notice the cracking of rifle fire from the Iraqi Special Forces. It’s the higher-pitched sound, and is coming from nearby Iraqi M4 rifles. You’ll also hear the large machine gun firing from the turret atop the Humvee. Watch the expended casings on the hood vibrate as the roof-mounted heavy machine gun fires. Do you hear the expended cartridges falling back into the crew compartment?

Another layer of sound present throughout the video is the idling of the vehicle’s diesel engine. Along with gunfire and explosions, the rumble of diesel engines is a constant in the soundtrack of modern ground combat.

Every Iraqi Special Forces soldier owns a cell phone. For a vehicle driver, it’s the only video camera he’d have or want to have with him in the cramped insides of a Humvee. Impressive that he holds the phone against his windshield to steady the shot against the rocking and vibration caused by the heavy machine gun — until the suicide car bomb knocks everything inside the vehicle loose.

Although the only motion in this video is the speeding suicide car bomb, it’s still a compelling representation of what a soldier stuck inside a Humvee sees and hears, as well as how helpless one feels as death races toward them.

Doubtful the zoom graphic surrounding the car bomb and slow-motion replay were edited in Iraq by the soldier. More likely the curators of the WarLeaks channel made those changes.

(How do we know these are Iraqi Special Forces? They are the only unit with black Humvees in Iraq. On the rear of the turret of the middle Humvee we see BN-36 and ISOF-1. BN-36 is the 2004 name of the Iraqi Special Forces, then called the 36th Commando Battalion. ISOF-1 stands for First Brigade, Iraqi Special Operations Forces. Both stenciled in English as a nod to their U.S. Army Special Forces lineage.)