Islamic State conflict: On the front line in battle for Mosul

By Orla Guerin
BBC News, northern Iraq

Kurdish fighter on the front line in Zartak Mountain
Image caption,
Kurdish fighters can see Mosul from their front-line post on Zartak Mountain

On a clear day there is a stunning view from Zartak Mountain in northern Iraq - the fertile Plain of Nineveh is spread out below, with the city of Mosul beckoning in the distance.

But for the past year Mosul and the surrounding villages have been in the death grip of Islamic State (IS). We could see smoke rising from one of their headquarters.

As we took in the sights, we were warned that the extremists were also watching us.

"They are about one kilometre away," said Brigadier Adel Rash, a commander of Kurdish Peshmerga forces. "When they see it's crowded here, they shoot with heavy machine-guns."

When the brigadier and his troops took the mountain last September - with the loss of eight men - they did not expect to be still gazing on Mosul from a distance 10 months later.

Image caption,
The Plain of Nineveh is spread out below the mountain

"At that time there was a plan to liberate Mosul as soon as possible," he said, "but it depends on the international coalition, the Iraqi government and leaders of our region. That's why it has been delayed. We could go there and liberate the city, if there is a plan."

For now Brig Rash waits for a plan, and for bullets.

"Every day we are short of ammunition," he said. "We don't have enough for the front line, and we need heavy weapons."

The brigadier also needs salaries for his men. They have not been paid since February because of a budget dispute between the Kurdistan regional government and the authorities in Baghdad.

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But the Kurds have one big advantage over IS - coalition air strikes.

They are crucial in helping the Peshmerga to hold the long front line near Mosul.

They can call in an air strike in about 20 minutes, according to the brigadier, thanks to close co-ordination with Canadian military advisers in the area. We caught a glimpse of them during our visit.

Image caption,
The Peshmerga are holding the front line with help from US-led coalition air strikes

For many of the fighters here, the struggle against the extremists is intensely personal. One of our Peshmerga escorts, Rasheed Zebari, was from Mosul himself.

"I have been in the city for 33 years, since my birth," he told us, looking down on his hometown. "Then IS came, and we escaped to avoid being killed.

"It was the worst day in my life, when they entered Mosul and we were displaced. But thank God for the Peshmerga. We will liberate Mosul."

But they face a formidable enemy, which has captured even more weapons from the Iraqi army in recent months.

Inside a sand-bagged observation post further along the front line we came within 800m, or half a mile, of the extremists.

They responded to our presence, firing two mortars within minutes of our arrival. Soon it was time to go. The Kurds had intercepted IS radio traffic about our convoy of vehicles.

Image caption,
For many of the Peshmerga, the struggle against IS is intensely personal

At a training camp not far away, we saw a new volunteer force being put through its paces.

It is composed of local men eager to liberate Mosul. On the parade ground, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds were marching in step, but they have barely enough weapons for training, let alone for fighting.

Their commander, General Mohamed Yahiya al-Talib, says they need help to free Mosul - which is mainly Sunni - but they do not need help from Iraq's powerful Shia militias.

"The militias are close to us and our families, but part of these militias are mobs who like chaos, and people who have a sectarian hate," he said.

The general says "sectarian issues" have delayed an operation to retake Mosul, and he complains that the Shia-led government in Baghdad is not funding the camp.

The former governor of Mosul, Atheel Nujaifi, has provided the vehicles and weapons.

There are fears here that an offensive to free the city may be last on the list for the government, which is now focused on retaking the city of Ramadi, close to Baghdad.

Away from the front lines, in the Kurdish city of Erbil, we met an official who managed to flee Mosul in February.

He escaped with bribes and a fake identity card after Islamic State sentenced him to death. He still has relatives in the city. For their sake we are not naming him.

He told us he had witnessed scores of public summary executions.

"With my own eyes between 10 June and 2 February, I saw about 140 to 150 people being killed," he said.

"They accuse innocent people of adultery and stone them to death. They push some off a high building - 15 or 20 floors up - for homosexuality. Others they hang. Or they cut off people's hands, for stealing."

His voice broke with emotion as he described another killing much closer to home.

Image caption,
At a training camp in northern Iraq, volunteers are preparing to fight for Mosul

"My brother owned a large restaurant, that was still under construction. If Islamic State sees a guy has money, they demand that he pay them $100,000 or more.

"My brother said he didn't have the money. Two days later they came and shot him in the head. He was gone, leaving four children behind."

He told us IS was holding two more brothers and one of his nephews.

"I am expecting a call at any minute telling me someone has been killed," he said. " I'm worried around the clock. The proof is that I was diagnosed with cancer two months ago from all the stress."

Now he has only one remaining wish - to return to his beloved Mosul for the last time.

"There is a fire burning in my heart because I haven't seen my city in a year," he said. "I wish to die in Mosul and be buried in the graveyard there with my father, brother, uncles and grandfather."