KHAZIR FRONT, Southeast of Mosul – Some 5,000 Peshmerga and Zeravani Special Forces launched a major pre-dawn offensive Sunday, aiming to liberate 10 villages from the Islamic State (ISIS) group and moving a step closer to an anticipated joint offensive on Mosul.
The 4 a.m. offensive began with Kurdish forces divided on eastern and western fronts and advancing toward a clutch of abandoned villages belonging to the Kakei and Shabak Kurdish minorities.
The villages are abandoned: residents fled to the Kurdistan Region when ISIS attacked two years ago.
Before the first light of dawn, the Peshmerga began the multi-pronged attack on villages that are few and far between, their advance slowed by roadside bombs and explosives planted by the militants.
“In the pre-dawn attack hundreds of armored vehicles, tanks, and personnel carriers moved on an asphalt road towards the main front from several different directions,” said Assi Ali, a 48-year-old veteran Peshmerga from Kirkuk.
For the first two hours after the Peshmerga began their assault, the forces faced a constant barrage of mortar fire which fell in thuds, setting off plumes of dust and smoke.
Three Peshmerga fighters were injured by mortars and ISIS shelling.
“ISIS is seeing our forces but we cannot see them because they hide inside civilian homes and in tunnels,” said Dilshad Mawlood, spokesman of the Zeravani forces.
He told Rudaw that, “other than taking the villages, the other goal is to push the ISIS threat further from the town of Khabat, and the third goal is to get closer to the final goal that is Mosul.”
The liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the ISIS stronghold in the country, has been in the making for months. Iraqi forces and its allied militias, the Peshmerga and US-led coalition forces have been coordinating an anticipated offensive.
Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani was reportedly directing the Khazir fighting, according to Aziz Waisi, commander of the Zeravani Special Forces.
“The president called me a while ago to ask about the safety and situation of Peshmerga and asked if the operation goes according to the plan,” he said. Securing the Khazir front, he added, would also bring greater stability to Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
Peshmerga officials told Rudaw that the Khazir front had remained quiet for the large part of the past two years, as battles were focused elsewhere, such as Shingal and Zumar.
Mawlood said that in some places on the frontline, ISIS and the Peshmerga were as close as a kilometer apart.
For the Khazir offensive, the Peshmerga forces convened at the Hassan Sham village, which was taken by ISIS in 2014 and retaken by the Peshmerga in September 2015.
Hundreds of army vehicles and thousands of soldiers had to cross a makeshift bridge -- built by the Peshmerga last year because ISIS blew up the main bridge there two years ago.
Some of the Peshmerga in Sunday’s battle are refugees fighting for their own villages.
“I am very happy to help liberate these villages today, because they are Kurds like us,” said First Lt. Hemin Rashid, a Zeravani Peshmerga fighter from Halabja. “After we liberate the village they can return and we will guard them too,” he said.
Rashid was on the front with his father and two brothers. Besides his flak jacket, he carried a magazine vest with 350 rounds of brand new bullets.
The Kurdish troops moved towards the front, passing close to the Zartik mountain that was retaken from ISIS only a year ago.
Zeravani General Aziz Waisi walked among his troops, giving out orders and making sure fully armed soldiers with helmets and heavy machine guns were stationed on every hilltop. Every now and then the Peshmerga let off a mortar shell or a round of heavy caliber machinegun fire at ISIS positions.
The Peshmerga built several new bunkers in territory taken by ISIS only two hours before, and were advancing with tanks and heavy artillery toward an ISIS village, as their snipers took aim at the village, looking for ISIS militants.
“I am looking for militants who are running or looking for cover,” a Peshmerga sniper told Rudaw shortly after smoke was spotted from a village following a coalition airstrike.
Minutes later the sniper steadied his hand and fired a single round.
“I just brought down the ISIS flag,” he said.
The Kurdish forces are accompanied by excavators and loaders which simultaneously dug trenches and erected dirt mounds as the forces moved head.
“They are digging trenches to make sure suicide trucks don’t come this way and then the main confrontation will start,” explained Qadir Hama Saleh, a Peshmerga from Kirkuk.
Sporadic and deadly mortar fire did not deter the hundreds of Peshmerga who kept marching on the main road, stood guard on hilltops or scouted out the forward operations units.
On the night before today’s attack, one Peshmerga was killed in his base on that very front by an ISIS mortar shell.