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.

SPG-9
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.

Civcas
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

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