Fight for Mosul: Undaunted by close calls, Iraqi soldier returns (again) to battle ISIS

Mohamed Selman Methboub, who was badly injured in a 2014 ISIS ambush, is part of the force pushing to liberate Mosul. The Army has been rebuilt from three years ago, when much of it disintegrated before an ISIS offensive. 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Iraqi Army driver Mohamed Selman Methboub rests on Feb. 28 in the souk of the town of Qayarrah after a difficult day of fighting Islamic State jihadists in Mosul. His Humvee gunner was killed by an IS sniper, and he rescued a stuck American armored vehicle under fire.

Even by the dramatic standards of Iraq’s battle against the Islamic State in western Mosul, soldier Mohamed Selman Methboub had a very big day. 

As the Iraqi military intelligence officer drove a Humvee in the contested Wadi Hajar district Tuesday, an IS sniper shot his turret gunner square in the forehead, killing him immediately. Misan was a close friend.

His team left the area, only to be interrupted by a distress call that prompted Mohamed to turn and drive back to aid an American armored vehicle stuck in a ditch and under mortar and sniper fire. During the rescue, IS sniper rounds smashed into Mohamed’s windshield and engine, but his team managed to pull the US rig out and guide it to safety.

 “I didn’t leave the Americans until I arrived in Hamam al-Alil,” says Mohamed, referring to a safe staging area just south of Mosul. He recounts the incident just hours later, as I meet him late in the evening by the roadside near an Iraqi base in Qayarrah, 40 miles south of Mosul (see map). A hug of greeting – we have known each other since 2002, when The Christian Science Monitor started following his family as it dealt with the effects of the Iraq war – produces a puff of battlefield dust from his uniform of digitized camouflage.

“One of their [Iraqi] translators, when we arrived, he kissed me from here to here,” the usually soft-spoken Mohamed says, laughing as he gestured from cheek to cheek.

“I swear by God I saved their lives,” he says, suddenly sober, noting that the US Army colonel in charge of the American unit also sought him out to express his gratitude.

Advancing on western Mosul

Mohamed’s day of extreme loss and gains comes as Iraqi forces take high casualties as they advance on the warren of roads in western Mosul. They aim to deliver a deathblow to IS’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which was announced in June 2014 after IS militants crossed from Syria and seized one-third of Iraq in a lightning offensive.

A military intelligence officer since 2006, Mohamed threw himself back into the fight last year after barely surviving an IS ambush in 2014 – exemplifying the passion and unmistakable fearlessness some Iraqis are bringing to the grinding battle to extract IS from its last urban stronghold in their country.

The Mosul offensive began last October with a 100-day push that liberated the eastern side of the city, on the east bank of the Tigris River.

“Progress is very good, is very strong,” says the Iraqi officer, referring to the second phase of the fight. “Actually, we try to finish the battle as soon as possible.”

On the day we meet, he says he counted the corpses of 17 IS fighters, most with identity cards marking them as Russian nationals, from Chechnya and Dagestan, and one from China.

Overall, the IS bodies his unit have found in Mosul are 60 percent Iraqi, and 40 percent foreigners, says Mohamed.

Our meeting is brief: We quickly try to catch up while sitting in an SUV pulled over on the side of the street, beside the closed stalls of the Qayarrah market. Ambulances with lights flashing pass by repeatedly. Mohamad is returning at 4 a.m., in just a few hours, to Wadi Hajar – the same district where he just lost his turret gunner.

The ever-changing front lines

The thrust to capture western Mosul began on Feb. 19, with an estimated 750,000 civilians still living in that congested part of Iraq’s second city, which at its peak was home to more than two million people. The United Nations said on March 2 that those in the west “remain largely inaccessible to humanitarians, sheltering from the fighting, or waiting for an opportune time to flee.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 191,800 people are still displaced by the fighting – the bulk of the 255,708 that have been cumulatively displaced since October – with 85 percent living in camps or emergency sites. 

Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, too. Since October, some 1,776 received trauma care in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, UN figures show. From early January to Feb. 22, another 618 civilians were treated for trauma injuries at a surgical hospital closer to Mosul.

But the war will be won on the ever-changing front lines in western Mosul, where, like the eastern side, dilapidated streets show the signs of nearly three years of IS rule – jihadist graffiti, and IS targets flattened by US-led coalition airstrikes. Exit routes to Syria have been severed, and several thousand jihadists are expected to fight to the death using favored tactics like suicide car bombs, snipers, and, more recently, small quad-copter drones rigged to drop grenades and small explosives. 

A high cost

The battle for Mosul has come at a high cost. One Federal Police commander, for example, whose forces have helped spearhead the offensive on the west of the city, told CNN this week that his unit of 130 had been whittled down by Mosul operations, dead and wounded, to just 27.

Mohamed’s unit, which he has belonged to for more than a decade, is a window on the scale of Iraqi casualties, and what motivates those who fight.

Mohamed is the personal driver of an Iraqi general – a rank that in most armies would rarely be on the front line itself. And yet, beside losing his turret gunner on Feb. 28, another incident just two days earlier saw an IS mortar hit the back of Mohamed’s vehicle, killing two and badly injuring a third member of his team.

Mohamed escaped unscathed – he had briefly moved away from the vehicle – and the general was elsewhere.

“Actually, I lose a lot of vehicles,” says Mohamed matter-of-factly. He had another close call earlier in the Mosul campaign, when an IS suicide car bomb destroyed all the vehicles around him, and blackened his own – but left him untouched.

“My life is for God, whether I die or not,” says the Shiite Muslim, whose family is very devout. “I’m a soldier, I think about my country. I’m not in a [sectarian] militia. I’m a soldier. That’s my duty; I have to do it.”

“I am not afraid, because I want to go to fight – either to die, or to live life,” says Mohamed. “So why be scared?”

A resurrected force

Not all Iraqi soldiers are so sanguine, or so calm. They are part of force that has been resurrected from the ashes of June 2014, when much of the Iraqi Army disintegrated before the offensive of IS fighters crossing from Syria to seize a chunk of Iraq. Rebuilding has taken time, yet Iraq’s security forces have made significant military gains over the past year.

Mosul is the final push. But not all fighters are as committed as Mohamed. 

“A lot of friends of mine, when they get home and they take their salary, they don’t want to go back anymore, they say, ‘I quit the Iraqi Army,’” says Mohamed. “They are afraid. They say, ‘I know I will die, so why go to fight?’ ”

Those calculations mean less to Mohamed, for whom this anti-IS battle is personal. In that June onslaught three years ago, IS ambushed his convoy near the central Iraqi city of Samarra. A fragment from a 12.7mm anti-aircraft bullet tore through his body at the start of a nine-hour firefight, during which Mohamed was forced to man a heavy machine gun even as he nearly expired from blood loss.

Mohamed was one of just three in his truck full of nine soldiers to survive, and the 50-vehicle convoy suffered a host of casualties. He received life-saving treatment in Baghdad, then more critical surgery in Iran, organized by this reporter and largely funded by a Monitor reader who had long tracked the family’s well being.

Reflecting quietly as we sit in the vehicle near the market, Mohamed recalls how, from his hospital bed in Tehran in mid-2014, he had vowed that he would eventually recover, rejoin the Iraqi Army, and fight IS in Mosul.

“I told them that I want to fight. I don’t want to stay in a stable place,” says Mohamed. “That’s why I put my name on the list. I want to fight ISIS. That’s my wish.”

Through his stubble and uneven teeth, Mohamed bears the rounded features and sharp eyes of his mother, Karima Selman Methboub, the matriarch widow of a poverty-stricken Baghdad family whose has raised her eight children alone. At 32, he is relaxed and confident, if slightly heavier and more serious than when I first met him as a teenager.

His colorful history includes a stint in Abu Ghraib prison during Saddam Hussein’s time, when he was wrongly accused of stealing a car. He was married the spring before IS arrived in Iraq, and his wife and he have a 3-year-old boy, Hassan.

The family wants Mohamed home, away from the perils in Mosul. But they offer potent prayers for him, and for his sense of mission.

“Every day my mom fights with me,” says Mohamed, adding that he tries to comfort her with intentionally boring accounts of his military existence. “They say, every day, ‘Why are you there? Why don’t you come back?’”

His tours are often 20 days long, but can be 40. Mohamed’s phone screensaver is the “Eagle of Saladin” coat of arms of Iraq, stylized with blueish and reddish neon features. Often he is out of reception range, but when he gets a signal, a string of social media messages arrives, including voice messages from Hassan.

“Where are you?” the toddler’s voice comes through the phone. Sometime he asks: “Dad you are asleep? Wake up!”

Mohamed’s phone has videos of Iraqi troops firing rockets, and of him in the driver’s seat of his Humvee, or sitting on his new rig earlier this week, before it got shot up. He deliberately does not take photos of IS corpses, aware that Hassan loves to play with the phone when he is home.

Another thing he doesn’t share with his close-knit family is what he is doing, hoping that they will worry less until he can announce, “We liberated Mosul!”

“I never tell them anything, just that I am in base and don’t move anywhere,” says Mohamed. “They don’t believe me.”

A protective ritual

He also doesn’t share a ritual that he engages in before he arrives home, where his young family lives with his mother and siblings. Before each break, he stops off at a shop on Baghdad’s Saadoun Street to buy a new uniform.

“Do you know why?” asks Mohamed, with a mischievous smile. “Because when my friend, my team is wounded, I carry them, and there’s a lot of blood on my uniform. I don’t want my family to see that.” 

What he wants them to know instead, and respect, is his determination to rid Iraq of IS of the same jihadists who have already put him and his family through such pain since 2014. 

“Am I happy?” he asks. “Of course. I want to liberate my country.”

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