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.

Dead ISIS
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.

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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.