By Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News
NEAR NAWARAN, Iraq — Behind fortified hills on the outskirts of a town called Nawaran, just over 16 miles northeast of Mosul, hundreds of Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, were encamped as the fight against the Islamic State raged on Thursday.
Since the battle for Mosul began earlier in the week, peshmerga forces have been persistent in recapturing their targeted towns, closing in toward the center of the city. They have managed to take control of more than a dozen villages in just a few days.
But on Thursday, forces faced hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by ISIS, as well as artillery and suicide bombers from the armed group.
The director of the Peshmerga Health Foundation said more than two dozen peshmerga soldiers were killed and more than 100 were injured in Nawaran operations alone that day, with battles northeast of Mosul still ongoing.
An encampment near the frontlines at Nawaran offered a glimpse into the fighting, with peshmerga soldiers coming and going from the battle lines in the northeast. Those who had not yet deployed said they were itching to take on the enemy first hand.
At the last security checkpoint just before the encampment, I met Achmed, a 20-year-old peshmerga soldier who has been serving for a year and was anxious to join the fight.
He smiled, pulled out his cigarettes and lit one up. Like many peshmerga, he expressed his excitement to meet Americans. “My fiancée is in Mosul. They [peshmerga] won’t let me have a gun.”
Achmed didn’t say why he wasn’t allowed to have a weapon, but he said he had been out in the fight before. He wants to make sure ISIS is kicked out of the country. But on Thursday he was working security at the checkpoint, his face covered with a mask, directing traffic.
After nearly half an hour at the checkpoint, and crossing into the encampment, Yahoo News met with one of the ground commanders, Gen. Hamid Rashad, who talked about the challenges of fighting a militia force like ISIS. “The enemy is very different here. It’s not like [fighting] another country. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Therefore we have to be very careful, because whenever we see a man, we’re afraid that he might detonate himself; if we see a [lone] woman, we’d also be afraid that under her clothes she has explosives.”
General Rashad’s forces had been fighting in small village near Nawaran, and thankfully they did not have any casualties, but he said, “This enemy is very large. We cannot take them alone.” He expressed his gratitude for the help they’re receiving from the United States, Germany and Canada.
U.S. and coalition forces have been providing support through airstrikes and claim they are supporting Iraqi and peshmerga forces in an “advice and assist” role for ground operations. The Pentagon announced that a U.S. Navy officer was killed in an IED explosion during the operation. And early this morning U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter arrived in Iraq to meet with his commanders and assess progress in the battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS.
Beyond the peshmerga camp, pops from artillery could be heard and loud explosions caused smoke to rise in the air. Soldiers who weren’t fighting were watching, standing on the fortified hills, prepared to fight if the battle came closer.
Hundreds of soldiers were sprawled across the camp; many of them were waiting for orders to go out and fight, while others were returning briefly to the camp to eat lunch and take a break from the fighting. One soldier, Azat, told Yahoo News he had fought in the village of Imam Raza. “We were fighting around the corners of the buildings,” he said. “We used machine guns, and also used tanks. When we got there, all the ISIS militants were running away.”
Azat said his brigade saw IEDs explode, but they didn’t see any suicide bombings. He said he felt proud to be part of the operation.
The camp itself was within range for mortars. Commanders on the ground also said ISIS snipers were believed to be on the road between the camp and the villages where battles were taking place.
Tiny villages like Khorsabad, southwest of Nawaran, could be seen burning.
Ambulances raced from battles to the peshmerga camp at high speeds, their sirens wailing. People on the street jumped out of the way so as not to get run over.
Wounded soldiers were unloaded from one truck and placed in another before being rushed to a field hospital run by the city of Dohuk’s government emergency service and coalition doctors, a few miles away.
Yahoo News spoke to one of the medics on the ground, Hamdi, who went out to help rescue victims at least four times. His uniform was a used U.S. military shirt with a yellow vest to identify him among the peshmerga. “There are big battles today.” Hamdi explained. “Their [peshmerga] injuries are all different from each other. They’re getting injuries from explosions and IEDs.”
As new ambulances arrived from the frontlines, crowds of peshmerga swarmed around the vehicle to see what had happened. Journalists were told not to take pictures, and medics worked quickly to transfer the patients. At the field hospital, journalists struggled to get access. The senior Kurdish doctor at the hospital lectured his staff and field medics about allowing reporters to get footage of the injured while they were in the ambulances.
The injured kept pouring into the small facility. Most of the victims coming through appeared to have severe head injuries. Their heads were all wrapped in white bandages, and blood was smeared on their faces.
Some patients appeared to have had their legs blown off from explosives on the battlefield.
Doctors crowded around the injured when they arrived, calling out commands. The patients were taken into an empty room, examined, stabilized and treated before being covered in a foil blanket and sent off to a regular hospital in Dohuk for more surgery.
While waiting for an interview with one of the hospital medics, Achmed, the peshmerga soldier from the checkpoint, arrived. One of his friends was being brought in from the frontlines. Waiting outside the room, he received a call from another friend, who was inside Mosul.
Achmed said his friend told him, “They’re trapped inside their houses by ISIS and can’t get out. My friend, he wants to go and fight them.”
ISIS recently released propaganda video showing masked fighters patrolling the city in an attempt to show they’re in control there.
Achmed was frustrated he couldn’t join the fight. Sitting slumped at the hospital, he pulled out another cigarette. He said he was angry the doctors wouldn’t let him in the treatment room to see his friend. Instead he ended up occupying his time by working on his English, making jokes and talking about wanting to go to America after the Mosul operation was over.
When one of the paramedics, Ali, at the field hospital finally finished his work, he told Yahoo News, “Most of the injuries are by bombs. Several of the injuries are from shelling. [There are] lower limbs and upper limbs injuries; some of them have head injuries.” But he also said, “We cannot further investigate [the wounds] or do any scanning. We don’t have the equipment.”
Ali said their goal was to stabilize the injuries as efficiently as possible so the patients could make it to the hospitals farther away.
Operations in the northeast proved to be far more difficult for the Kurdish soldiers on Thursday. But the fighters in the camp maintained a reasonably high morale knowing they were working hard to recapture towns and villages quickly each day.
Soldiers returning from the frontlines told Yahoo News over and over again that they were not afraid of ISIS and were determined to push them out of Mosul.
Fighters backed by competing political parties were unified in their mission to fight ISIS. The camp outside Nawaran had Kurdish soldiers from both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the People’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK), which often rival each other in everyday circumstances.
But for the time being, they’re all simply peshmerga soldiers, with one common enemy, one they’re determined to defeat.