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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!”