Kurdish peshmerga fighter Germad Yihya stood on a small mound overlooking a village where he said Islamic State militants had been defeated. A line of trees 500 metres away from his position yielded evidence that he can’t afford to be complacent.
A day earlier, a suicide bomber had rushed out of the thick green vegetation and killed five of Germad’s comrades. Kurdish forces had been fighting for 10 days to gain the upper hand in Fadiliya – where 1,000 people remain trapped, surrounded by roadside bombs.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have cleared more than 30 villages like Fadiliya during their offensive to drive Islamic State from its main Iraqi stronghold of Mosul. The unfolding battle is expected to be the biggest in Iraq for more than a decade.
Clearing the hardline Sunni militants from areas where they once imposed a reign of terror is proving to be a slow and risky mission. Securing Mosul – with a population of 1.5 million – could take months in the event of victory.
When Kurdish fighters first entered Fadiliya, they faced a barrage of suicide bombers screaming “Allah hu Akbar” (God is Greatest) while speeding towards them in cars, SUVs, motorcycles and Humvees stolen from the Iraqi army.
“On the first day there were ten suicide bombers coming at us from all directions. All kinds of cars,” said Yihya. “Fighting street to street. House to house. They fired at us with machine guns too.”
The jihadists were mostly in their 20s. They included Iraqis, as well as what Kurdish officials describe as the most ruthless and efficient Islamic State radicals – foreign fighters from places like Chechyna.
Rigged with explosives
The Kurds had to move cautiously through the village, a collection of drab cement structures set against a backdrop of mostly barren land about 4 km from Mosul.
Like other such villages, it is rigged with explosives, forcing a slow advance by Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
“There are so many bombs planted that I now regard the ground as my enemy,” said Yihya, with an uneasy smile.
Along a narrow dirt road nearby, it’s easy to see why.
As thick dust stirred up by vehicles settled, nine small, red flags became visible beside the roadway, indicating Kurdish forces believe improvised explosive devices were planted there.
Just outside the village, military engineers worked meticulously to clear roadside explosives to give civilians safe passage. Bomb disposal experts blew up two devices in about an hour.
Kurdish fighters say Islamic State fighters are hiding in an elaborate tunnel system beneath Fadiliya, like the network militants have built in nearby Mosul.
Flushing them out will be dangerous, and will take time.
For now, a small group of peshmerga fighters are content to pass the time on a dirt mound, occasionally raising their AK-47 assault rifles. Sandbags are attached to their pickup truck, scant protection against suicide bombers.
Swara Omar talked tough as he stood with his back to the trees from where the suicide bomber emerged to carry out the attack that killed five of his comrades.
“Daesh is weak,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “They are not as effective as before.”
But his optimism was tinged with the realization that perils still await these Kurdish warriors, who were routed during an Islamic State advance in the north in 2014 but slowly regained territory after the United States helped with air strikes.
“We will go in again when we get the order. There are many IEDs. It’s full of IEDs,” he said, as a Kurdish flag fluttered over a building in the village behind him.
Kurdish special forces are stationed further away from the village at a checkpoint with watch towers. They are not taking any chances either.
When a man who had come from one of the villages presented himself to them, an officer carefully inspected his cell phone, reviewing a few numbers stored in his contacts list.
In the distance, the bomb squad detonated more explosives. Shooting could also be heard, a foretaste of the task ahead.