The next two days with General Abbas were a collage of war memories.
We started the morning with 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 said. General Abbas made a point to tell me how this one street vendor was already a sign things were returning to normal in Mosul.
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.
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.)
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.
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. “Cee-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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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