The Attack on Mosul Three Shepherds on a Surreal Front

The attempt to retake Mosul from Islamic State has been underway for almost two weeks. Resistance from the jihadists is fierce and chaos on the front lines has resulted in some surreal scenes.

A droning noise fills the air. It sometimes fades before once again growing louder -- but it never disappears. It's the sound of American jets constantly circling over the battlefield. You never see them, but their pilots see everything. Allegedly.

On the ground things are quiet. Too quiet, according to Lieutenant Ammar and the other members of the seventh battalion of the Kurdish Peshmerga: "For the past two days, nothing has moved over there, absolutely nothing."

From their elevated position, they have a clear view of the village of Fazilia, northeast of Mosul. It is a region where the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan give way to a barren landscape of hills -- and the village is situated on the final hillside before the plains begin. It is one of Islamic State's last bastions in the area. Up until a few days ago, IS was firing mortar shells from the village while the jets and the Peshmerga fired back. Three IS suicide bombers had sped toward the opposing lines in cars filled with explosives, but all of them had detonated prematurely. And since then: quiet. The only impacts are in the distance. Are the jihadists still there? Did they flee? Nobody really knows.

The first houses are about 800 meters (2,600 feet) away. Through the scope of a MILAN anti-tank rocket launcher, white flags can be seen flying from the houses. But there is nobody on the streets, no movement at all, as if the village had died out. Over a thousand people are supposedly still there, "but why don't they come out? It smells like a trap," says Ammar.

The lieutenant and about 50 men are lying on an embankment, keeping watch and waiting. Suddenly, one of the men who is keeping watch over no man's land to their right, suddenly yells: "There. They are fleeing!" At first you can only see dust trails, but before long they can be made out: three shepherds with their flocks of sheep. They cross the undulating lunar landscape as if in slow motion, tiny black and white points in the endless ochre-gray surroundings, under a sky that is nearly the same color. It is a surreal scene. But they aren't coming from Faisaliah. They must have set out from one of the villages further to the west.

A Trio of Shepherds

Unperturbed, the trio wanders with their herds between the frontlines as if the war was no concern of theirs. But they are walking right through the middle of a minefield. Fewer than 100 meters away lies the wreckage of a car where five Peshmerga troops lost their lives when mine blew up their vehicle.

The three shepherds are walking so slowly that even the long detour by way of the only clear path through the minefield doesn't prevent us from catching up to them. They are still children. "We left Chanchi" -- a tiny village -- "at daybreak," says the oldest of the three. They set out, he says, "when we were certain that all of the Daeshis were gone," using the Arabic term for IS fighters.

The boy introduces himself as Omar and says that he was born in 2002. His brothers, he explains, are 13 and 11 years old: "In the summer two years ago, when the strangers suddenly moved in, we were far away with the animals. We weren't even aware of what had happened. My parents, everybody, fled. When we came back to the village, it was too late. We couldn't leave anymore."

Turkey Raqqa Syria Mosul Faisaliah Baghdad Iraq Saudi Arabia Euphrates Sources: Thomas van Linge; in-house research; updated: Oct. 27 Key regions under the control of Government and allies Kurds Islamic State

Turkey Raqqa Syria Mosul Faisaliah Baghdad Iraq Saudi Arabia Euphrates Sources: Thomas van Linge; in-house research; updated: Oct. 27 Key regions under the control of Government and allies Kurds Islamic State


So the three of them stayed, living for two years in one of the abandoned houses and tending to their sheep. Every once in a while, they sold some of them at local markets. He insists that they never had anything to do with IS. "I sometimes saw them in the mosque on Fridays, otherwise never." When they arrived, the IS fighters had laid down strict rules. But Omar doesn't even know anymore what the bearded men wanted -- "only that they would chop off my head if I did something wrong. I was always afraid of that. That they would cut off my head."

The world outside of their low villages and barren pastures in the region is foreign and spooky to him. There is, in fact, only one thing he knows for sure: "The day before yesterday it was 135 sheep. Perhaps a few died from the mortars yesterday. I'm not totally sure at the moment. But 135 sheep, that was our herd." It is all that he and his two little brothers have left.

But now they have to keep going -- through the mined countryside. And the fear suddenly spills out of Omar: "By God, we are afraid, we don't know where the mines are." But the sheep, he says, haven't eaten or drunk anything in four days. And they themselves want to find their parents. They are staying with relatives in the village of Sindana. He says.

Not Enough Gas Masks

Civilians between the fronts, fighting in the chaos: It's a nightmare for many regular troops. But that's what the fight for Mosul , Islamic State's Iraq stronghold, is like. For nearly two weeks, Kurdish Peshmerga troops, Iraqi army soldiers and Shiite militia members have been marching on the city, all supported by the Americans. Almost everything is going according to plan, say the officers. But the campaign frequently bogs down.

The Islamists are resisting and the jets, despite their high-tech optics, are often blinded by the giant, dark gray clouds of smoke coming from countless fires. Islamic State has set fire to oil wells, piles of tires, and part of a sulfur factory in Mishraq, south of Mosul. For several days, soldiers near the factory have only been able to venture outside for a few hours at a time wearing gas masks. But there aren't enough gas masks.

Most alliance fighters, though, aren't dying in battle. They are losing their lives while driving, when opening doors -- or even picking up a clock by the side of the road. They are dying whenever one of the many thousands of mines and boobytraps detonates that IS has hidden in all kinds of places over the last several months. And even as the coalition has advanced, IS has launched counterattacks elsewhere -- in Kirkuk, for example, or Ruba.

Lieutenant Ammar's Kurdish fighters are tense with fear that yet another armored pickup or truck filled with explosives will start racing towards them from some hiding place. Almost nothing aside from missiles from the jets overhead can stop the vehicles. In theory, the German-made MILAN rockets from the 1970s could also destroy them, says Lieutenant Ammar: "As long as the car isn't zigzagging. If it is, the MILANs only hit the target if it's driving slower than 40 kilometers per hour."

He says it's a miracle that the last suicide bomber exploded 50 meters in front of a Kurdish Humvee a few days ago, tearing off the foot of one of his men but not killing anybody. Maybe it was because of a bump that the racing IS fighter apparently didn't see. Suicide bombers supposedly hold the detonators in their hands in case they are shot as they approach. The bump could have been enough to make the driver set it off by accident.

A Strange Caravan

It's not easy to keep track of what's going on in this chaotic battle, even for high-ranking officers. Sometimes places are declared to have been liberated before they have been. Last Saturday morning, it was said that the small Christian town of Bartella was under army control and an Iraqi general even gave an improvised press conference in the center.

But on Sunday morning, it's clear that Bartella hasn't been liberated at all. For hours, heavy explosions can be heard on the edge of the city, while on the other side of town, black-clad non-commissioned officers from the army's "Golden Division" are assuring people that the situation will be under control in half an hour. They say they missed a couple of IS units on the edge of town.

Around 2 p.m., a strange caravan gets underway: Up front are the combat vehicles of the Golden Division, pock-marked with dents. Then comes a bishop in a black-violet habit and a handful of anxious-looking priests, squeezed into an armored off-road vehicle. An astonishingly intact street sign proclaims: "Mosul, 27 kilometers." The tires of the vehicles crunch over bullet casings and the glowing wire-scrap remnants of burned out piles of tires.

At a main-street intersection, the journey continues on foot, single file to the Church of the Virgin Mary one kilometer away. Those needing to relieve themselves must do so in the middle of the street because of the mines. Shiite soldiers, with oversized flags of their saints flying from their cars, pose for selfies with two female Czech TV reporters, one of whom is wearing camouflage leggings. Somewhere in the distance, there is an explosion.

The church is still standing and even the bells are still there -- and will soon ring out over the ruined city. The graves in the crypts and in the nearby cemetery have been dug up and plundered, all of the statues have had their heads hacked off. A final message from the jihadists is spray-painted in blue on the church façade: "The Islamic State is remaining and expands." The expansion has doubtlessly been stopped. But the danger that IS will remain, even after a defeat, is real.

Since Wednesday of last week, about 100 IS attackers have spread fear in the large city of Kirkuk, well southeast of the front. They first occupied several buildings in the city center, including police stations. But then, even after the buildings were reconquered, small IS groups kept fighting and sowing panic. Police officers, soldiers and armed neighborhood vigilantes shot at anyone suspected of belonging to IS. Photographer Hawre Khalid from Kirkuk reports that an entire family was mowed down in its car because the driver didn't stop quickly enough. And deep in the southwest of Iraq, IS troops overran the desert city of Rutba. They are all suicide missions, but they stoke the fear of this monstrous machinery of horrors.

'We're Afraid of the Gardens'

What are the Islamists going to do this time, wonder the men of Lieutenant Ammar's small Kurdish unit near Fazilia. Hour after hour nothing moves. The two old tanks of belonging to their unit rattled up to the ring of gardens surrounding the village at one point, and then returned. Not a shot was fired. "We are afraid of the gardens," says Ammar. "Anything can come out of them."

The two weathered tank drivers shrug slightly when asked if they are afraid. Haidar is 49, Jabar is 45, and their two Soviet-made T-62 tanks are even older. The bullet hole in the gun turret, Haidar notes, is from 1986. "Iran front." Fear? No, he says without emotion. "In Iraq, dying has become so normal. Since the 1980s, there has always been some war going on. And I have always been part of it." He and Jabar have been doing their jobs for 30 years. And they've survived it all. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll see tomorrow.

On Thursday, the village of Fazilia was finally conquered. But all of the wars, all of the forgotten dead from the 80s, the 90s, the Iranian front, Kuwait, Iraqi Kurdistan and then, after 2003, everywhere in the country, the knowledge that in this country, yesterday's victims will become the oppressors of tomorrow. All of that comes together on this October afternoon in one laconic sentence: Dying has become so normal in Iraq.

Why? Haidar shrugs again: "That seems to be this country's fate. We are savage to one another." He believes that the foreseeable defeat of IS in Mosul won't mean the end of the war. The mercilessness of the victors and their disagreement over to whom the city should belong to in the future, he claims, will spur the next turn in the endless fighting: Kurds against Shiite militias, Iraqis against the Turkish army, "who knows?" A third shrug. And presumably he, Jabar and their 54-year-old tanks will once again take part. He says that's how it is with Soviet weapons: "They last forever."+

Carrying On

More refugees from Chanchi have followed in the footsteps of the three shepherd boys. Two farmers have saved their tractors, one pulling the other along the dusty road. A Peshmerga fighter in a pickup hardly wants to stop. He has a small wailing boy with a bandaged arm in his passenger seat and there are women and children cowering on the truck bed. "We need to keep going, find a hospital somewhere," he says. Those in the truck are his relatives.

All of the traffic backs up at the Peshmerga checkpoint located between two steep hills, where the "Caliphate" front line stood for two years. And the herd of sheep with Omar and his two little brothers reappears. At first, nobody seems to take much notice. But then, uniformed men run up to them. One of them pulls Omar from his donkey and yells: "Were you with Daesh?"

"No, saiydi" -- sir -- "I wasn't. I merely looked after the sheep."

"Yes you were!" He boxes the boy on the ear.

"No, saiydi, no."

This continues for a while before the oldest one is ultimately arrested. The younger ones are allowed to carry on.

The two of them and their herd continue onward through the hills for two or three kilometers and can be seen periodically from a distance. But then they disappear. An hour later, two uniformed Kurds drive their herd up the street. Oddly enough, the village of Sindana, which eldest-brother Omar had named -- their alleged destination -- isn't known to anybody in the area. There is no place with that name, say other refugees and Peshmerga fighters. The image of the three dissolves like a mirage. Who are they really? Was the oldest one maybe really with IS?

On two occasions in recent days, SPIEGEL teams witnessed the capture of IS fighters. In the Jada refugee camp, four young men are recognized by distant relatives and arrested. In the village of Tall Teiyba, far south of Mosul, two men try to flee, but the last car and the last motorcycle remaining refuse to start. The men surrender to Iraqi soldiers and wail that they didn't do anything bad. They are pitiful figures and very young, neither fanatic nor determined. Instead, they are fearful, confused and apparently not all that bright.

Meanwhile, fires are being reported in the center of Mosul, in addition to explosions. The provincial council building, the registration office and several banks go up in flames. Witnesses from inside the city confirm that IS is starting to cover its own tracks.

Islamic State always maintained a bureaucratic apparatus. They wrote down, collected and used everything. But now, the files, documents and bank transfers are are apparently to be destroyed before they can fall into enemy hands.

There are likewise reports of many IS fighters leaving the city of Mosul, most of them probably following secret routes to Syria. One after the other, IS units are abandoning their positions, moving back across the Tigris towards the center. At the end of last week, they even held a military parade there, the participants of which were mostly foreign fighters, including from China. According a Mosul informant for the publication Iraq Oil Report, which is extremely well sourced in the city, Iraqi members of the group stayed away for fear of resistance in the city itself.


When IS overran Mosul in June 2014 in the space of just a few days, they recruited local leaders for its feared "Hisba" patrol troops from the city's poor neighborhoods, which was a tactically clever move at that time. But recently the Hisba groups became increasingly brutal to keep people in fear. And now it's not working anymore. They are able to keep fewer and fewer people in check and are driving increasing numbers into a partially desperate and partially expectant resistance. The Mosul Brigades, as the IS enemies in Mosul call themselves, shoot at the jihadists from windows and other hiding spots.

On the other hand, IS snipers from Syria supposedly have arrived as reinforcements, to both reinforce and raise the morale of the remaining fighters. It is thought that they possess chemical weapons, mostly from old stocks, and are ready to use them. And according to a SPIEGEL informant in Mosul, the network of tunnels that IS has dug in the city -- of the kind the jihadists spent years digging even under villages and small towns -- extends for about 17 kilometers. Some of the tunnels are apparently two-and-a-half meters tall and wide: large enough to drive a car through.

But the anti-IS alliance is also relying on an unconventional form of combat: According to the Iraq Oil Report, "Cellphone networks have reactivated dormant SIM cards, improved cellphone reception, and issued free credit with text messages urging civilians to cooperate with future instructions from Iraqi security forces." This, the Report notes, "has led to a significant increase in the range and frequency of communications between residents and Iraqi security forces. Residents in different neighborhoods are reporting the whereabouts and numbers of IS militants in the city via SMS."

The young shepherds from Chanchi with their sheep have never owned a cell phone. Our search for the two younger ones ultimately leads to the local Peshmerga headquarters. The sergeant on duty answers curtly: "What do you want? To ask about two boys and a herd of sheep?!"


But unexpectedly, one of the highest-ranking Kurdish generals is sitting in a meeting room and he likes the question: "We need to pay attention to the people. If we only counter the horrors of IS with horrors of our own, then we will not accomplish anything." His orders set off a series of hectic phone calls until suddenly the two young shepherds are led into the room, intimidated but unharmed.

The two repeat their story. Only that now they no longer know where they should flee. They are given cookies and juice. "God damn it, these are just children," the general says, as another Kurd, speaking German with an accent from the Ruhr Valley in western Germany, presents himself ("Bottrop Kurdish association"). He says reassuringly: "The youth welfare office will surely take in the boys!" It's surreal.

The next morning, everybody is gone: the general, the man from Bottrop, the boys and their herd. The man on duty says they were let go: "They went to Sheikh Marwan." But nobody is familiar with this village either. Apparently neither Omar nor the two younger boys were telling the truth.

As the war continues, as missiles from far overhead continue to rain down on fast-moving suicide bombers and IS positions, and as the inhabitants of Fazilia tearfully celebrate the swift and gentle defeat of IS in their village on Thursday afternoon, the three and their herd of sheep have simply vanished.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 44/2016 (October 29th, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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