Iraqi forces make slow progress in the fight against Islamic State
Civilians flee violence as an uneasy alliance tries to take back towns near Mosul
An Iraqi family fleeing the violence in the northern city of Mosul arrives at a Kurdish checkpoint in Makhmour, about 280km north of Baghdad. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi soldiers fighting Islamic State hold a position on the front line on the outskirts of Makhmour. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
A displaced woman carries her child in a building that is used as a temporary shelter in the Makhmour area. Photograph: Azad Lashkari/Reuters
It is a half-hour drive from the Makhmour military base to the front line between Iraqi army and Islamic State positions, bouncing down mud roads, through village after village that have been completely flattened.
Neat piles of rubble replace homes, the silence occasionally interrupted by the thump of mortars being fired up ahead.
Progress on the front line here has already been made by Peshmerga forces, Kurdish fighters native to this northern Iraq landscape.
It is now Iraqi army soldiers from the western-trained Division 15 who are trying to push forward from this position in to Arab villages south of Islamic State-occupied Mosul city.
For three days they have been trying to take the village of al-Nasr, up the hill from the front line and held by fighters with Islamic State, also known as Isis. They have pounded the area with mortars, but not managed to take it.
The Iraqi army’s position is flanked on both sides by small, sand-banked Peshmerga outposts.
Peshmerga commander Col Naji Bedaroni emerges at the front line, a towering man in green khaki, looking sternly out over the hill through binoculars.
“It’s not strong enough – it is very weak,” he says, within earshot of the Iraqi troops.
“I believe that if the Peshmerga had the equipment they have, we could liberate it in three to four hours, not three to four days. They are weak, they don’t believe strongly in the fight.”
Peshmerga fighters resent the billions of dollars worth of military equipment the US has supplied to the Iraqi army, while they fight largely with decades-old AK47s.
Long-awaited operationAn ambulance emerges from the direction of the village where some fighters have tried to enter. We are waved away.
There are no casualties, say Iraqi commanders here. Later, a Peshmerga fighter whispers to us that several injured Iraqi army soldiers are being taken away.
Mosul city is far beyond this spot, at least 70km north. Last month the Iraqi government announced this long-awaited operation to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants.
Few believe it will be quick.
Iraqi forces abandoned their positions in Mosul and the surrounding area in 2014 when Islamic State fighters swept across the country.
Morale in the army has since been low, adding to speculation that these soldiers do not have the grit to take on hardened Islamic State positions.
Attempts to change that are apparent. Before we leave Makhmour base for the front line, a commander carries a large speaker in to the back of an armoured vehicle of our convoy.
“To play Iraqi songs for the soldiers,” he smiles. At the front, some fighters have small Iraqi flags placed into their body armour; they curl in the breeze above their heads.
Later in the morning, Lt Gen Riyadh Talal Tawfiq, Iraq’s commander of ground forces, appears, surrounded by bodyguards.
“We are determined to cleanse all of Iraq, every inch of Iraq from the filth of those rogues,” he says.
American troops have been supporting these soldiers with air strikes and artillery defences for their bases.
A US marine was killed when an Islamic State rocket hit his base in Makhmour last month, forcing the Pentagon to admit it had 200 marines stationed there. Since then, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Joseph Dunford, has admitted there will be more US boots on the ground soon.
Even with US support, however, it is unlikely that the Iraqi army will be able to retake Mosul alone.
The Peshmerga, who have managed to push Islamic State out of most Kurdish areas, are the most skilled allies of the US in the battle against the militant group.
It is unclear, however, if they are willing to get involved in a protracted battle for an Arab city without some political agreement about who controls what when the fight is won.
Shia militiasThe Peshmerga fight to protect the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq that borders Mosul, and bad blood with the Baghdad government runs deep.
In 2014 the then prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, halted funds to Kurdistan from the nation’s budget, and arguments over the Kurdish region selling its oil independently have prevented that measure being reversed.
A crash in oil prices has left the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) near bankruptcy. Peshmerga fighters have not been paid their salaries for four months.
“You cannot win a war on an empty stomach,” says KRG spokesman Safin Dizayi.
“It’s not just salaries. You need to maintain the logistics for the battle, whether they are ammunition, weaponry, food supplies, medical care.”
This fight to retake Iraqi territory from Islamic State has included another group: Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Mainly Shia militias, they are a controversial fighting force, accused of violent abuses against the Sunni communities they are meant to be freeing from Islamic State. Iraq’s army, who they fight alongside, is also Shia-dominated.
In Makhmour, however, the PMF is made up of local Sunni tribal fighters. Upon arriving at their front-line position, the atmosphere between the Iraqi army commanders accompanying us and the PMF is deeply uncomfortable.
‘Bitterness and poison’Civilians fleeing the fighting arrive, packed on to the back of pick-up trucks.
The body of a teenage girl, wrapped in a blanket, is placed on the ground next to her crying relatives. Someone pulls back the sheet to show her bloodied face, mouth open, as if in shock at her violent death.
Within minutes, a row breaks out between the Iraqi army commanders and the Sunni fighters, their shouts drowning out the sound of crying civilians, sitting on the dried dirt at their feet.
“Isis is bitterness and poison, bitterness and poison, my dear,” says an elderly woman covered in dust, still out of breath from escaping her village.
She clutches a cigarette and lighter in one weathered hand. Smoking is strictly banned by Islamic State.
She tells me the Islamic State fighters took away seven men from her family.
The shouting between armed tribal fighters and Iraqi army soldiers has become dangerous.
An Iraqi army general, acting as our escort, orders us back to our vehicle, stony-faced, perhaps nervous. We must leave.
As we drive away, the general looks uneasily over his shoulder and down the road behind us.
Civilians flee other villages in the area on the same day, grabbing the chance to bolt from the front line in several hundred battered cars, pick-up trucks, lorries and tractors.
Children are packed into the back of cars, smiling and waving as their exhausted parents drive down the road to Makhmour. They will be housed in the town at a facility, we are told by the army.
So far at least three villages have been retaken, but the progress is conspicuously slow.
All parties fighting on the battlefield show deep mistrust of one another, leading to at times chaotic scenes that are unlikely to make Islamic State fear a swift assault.