Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes advanced easterly on Sunday in an attack designed to prepare the way for an offensive to drive Isis forces from Mosul. Tanks, armoured vehicles and infantry moved forward warily because of the threat from Isis snipers, IEDs and suicide bombers, capturing by mid-afternoon six villages that were abandoned by their inhabitants when Isis took over two years ago.
The advance by 5,500 Kurdish Peshmerga and the so-called Zerevani Special Forces is first significant attempt for two years to drive Isis from the Nineveh Plain to the east of Mosul. Wholly outgunned by the massive firepower of the US-led air coalition, well dug-in Isis fighters responded to the attack with mortar fire and sniping. The spokesman for the Zerevani forces Dilshad Mawlood told Rudaw news agency: “Isis is seeing our forces, but we cannot see them because they hide inside civilian homes and in tunnels.”
Peshmerga casualties appear to have been light, although according to one report they included a brigadier killed in the battle. Isis is still capable of mobilising and deploying suicide bombers on a mass scale but these no longer cause the terror they once did, and bombers are frequently killed before they can get close enough to cause casualties.
Western troops, who may have been from the US or Canada, were identified by reporters close to the front line. The US has been playing an increasingly active role on the ground in Iraq, with almost 5,000 soldiers here along with 7,000 contractors working for the US. Asked to comment on the presence of US forces close to the front line the spokesman for the US-led Coalition said: “U.S. and coalition forces are conducting advise and assist operations to help Kurdish Peshmerga forces”.
At the height of the US occupation of Iraq ten years ago the US had 170,000 soldiers in the country. Although the number of US soldiers may be smaller in the current conflict, the Peshmerga are entirely dependent on close air support to identify and destroy Isis fighters in fixed positions.
In addition to the attacks east of Mosul, there were also advances by the Peshmerga on other fronts that may have been diversionary and designed to confuse the enemy. This included an action near the abandoned Christian town of Teleskof 14 miles north of Mosul. Isis broke through the Kurdish front line here in early May in a battle during which a US Navy Seal was killed as well as several hundred Isis fighters and many Peshmerga.
I was driving to this town on Sunday when we got a phone call saying there was heavy fighting and continual airstrikes which would make it impossible to get through. It is unclear what really happened but a local source said the Peshmerga had started to advance, but had then been driven back by an Isis counter-attack, which US air strikes were trying to repel.
Kurdish military leaders have said that the present offensive was not aimed at recapturing Mosul, which had a population of two million before Isis seized it in 2014. But, if it is successful, it will bring the Peshmerga within ten miles of the city and will drive Isis from the Nineveh Plain, that was previously inhabited by 100,000 Christians as well as Kurdish and Islamic minorities such as the Shabak and Kakei.
Yohanna Towaya, a member of the Hammurabi human rights organisation and a community leader from the small Christian city of Qaraqosh, now empty apart from Isis guards but once home to 50,000 people, said he understood that “the Peshmerga plan to liberate it along with another Christian town called Bartella”. He intends to go to Qaraqosh where private houses are mostly intact though Isis stripped them of all furniture and appliances. Isis also destroyed public building such as the police station and council offices.
The Christians fled the Nineveh Plain when Isis advanced in August 2014 after capturing Mosul in June and Christian leaders warned that the 2,000 year old history of the Christian community in Iraq is coming to an end. This verdict is unlikely to be reversed even if the Peshmerga recapture the lost Christian towns and villages over the next few days. Mr Towaya said that “nobody will go back permanently until they liberate Mosul, because we are afraid Isis will attack again with suicide bombers.” Some 35 per cent of the Christians who used to live in the area have left Iraq for countries like France and Canada.
Isis is under severe pressure in its two remaining urban strongholds in Iraq – Fallujah and Mosul – and does not appear to have an answer to specialised ground troops calling accurate airstrikes. But this strategy is displacing much of the Sunni Arab population of Iraq from their homes with a strong possibility they will be unable to return.