We’re in the Nivenah Province Joint Operations Command Center where Iraqi and American military officers are watching a drone feed closely. On screen, ISIS militants can be seen lined up, evenly spaced, against a bank.
This isn’t the first time the Iraqi army has tried to retake the village of al-Nasr. Close to the Tigris river, the village is a vital step in the first phase of the operation to recapture Mosul from ISIS.
“Look he’s firing!” shouts General Najim al-Jobori, commander of the Nineveh operation, pointing to an ISIS fighter on the screen before barking orders in to his cell phone to the men on the frontline.
Seconds later, an airstrike hits close to the berm and the room erupts in cheers.
As the smoke clears, the fighters appear immobile. But when the drone camera zooms out, dozens of suspected ISIS militants can be seen running around the village, darting in and out of buildings.
“You came in maybe three hours into the battle,” explains Colonel Scott Naumann, of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, which is partnered with the Nineveh command. “What we initially saw was Daesh flowing out,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “So what we’re seeing really is just kind of the remnants of the force that was in the town.
“Predominantly, they are fighting conventionally right now — there are a lot of trenches a lot of individual fighting positions. But, he adds, “the enemy is using a lot of VBIEDs and IEDs,” referring to Improvised Explosive Devices, vehicle-borne or otherwise.
Naumann also says, “as they move into urban areas out of some of the trenches … they are also … putting booby traps in some of the homes. As they fall back — and it’s really inevitable as the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) push them — they’re trying to leave traps behind so they can get the Iraqis as they move in.”
Suicide truck bombs
The roads to the frontline are littered with flattened buildings.
The Kurdish Peshmerga moved in here to fight ISIS after the Iraqi army humiliatingly fled the region two years ago. The Peshmerga have been holding a long defensive berm since then, and it’s from this that the Iraqis — the 15th Division of the Iraqi Army — pushed forward towards al-Nasr.
Coalition fighter jets continuously roar overhead, plumes of smoke rise from the direction of al-Nasr as senior Iraqi commanders huddle in a sandbagged watch position on top of one of the few buildings still standing.
They are in constant radio contact with their forces further forward; the commanders are also receiving regular updates from the joint operations center, and watching the live drone footage.
If they can capture al-Nasr they’ll have a decisive advantage out here. The village is on high ground but it’s flanked by ISIS-controlled villages on either side.
Shortly before we arrived, we were told a suicide bomber in a truck had managed to maneuver around those troops on the frontline and barrel down towards the berm, but an airstrike destroyed the vehicle just a few hundred meters before it reached its target.
Still it appears that the Iraqis are bogged down; ISIS is sending in suicide car bombs from all sides, and snipers from the surrounding villages are a constant danger.
The commanders’ faces are looking increasingly drawn.
“If I have the liberty to make a decision about this operation I wouldn’t make a move only on al-Nasr village, because my forces will be at risk of enemy’s fire from both sides,” a senior Iraqi military officer says.
“I would mobilize my forces on all three fronts at the same time and smash the enemy.”
But the Iraqis lack the forces, one of the Iraqi commanders says, to attack all three villages at the same time.
“It’s got to be their plan,” Naumann told us. “This is their fight. We are here to enable them, but it is their fight. We offer up come considerations as they come up with plans on their timeline — we offer them advice.”
And — crucially — the U.S. integrates its capabilities into the Iraqis’ plans. But even with U.S. and coalition backing, success is neither quick nor guaranteed.
“As we put more pressure on the enemy up here, the Daesh fighters are starting to surge in this area in particular because they feel the pressure towards Mosul,” says Naumann.
“They know — particularly in this area — if they lose this, it’s only a matter of time because the momentum really is on the Iraqi security forces’ side.”
But that momentum doesn’t necessarily mean success.
The Iraqis managed to capture most of al-Nasr the day we watched their operations — but a moment of battlefield confusion resulted in their inadvertent withdrawal just as they were attempting to regroup.
ISIS took advantage and moved back in.
Now the Iraqis are holding on to the little terrain that they did grab — keeping defensive positions in the northern part of the village and throughout Nineveh province as they wait for reinforcements to arrive.