Rockets, gunfire and a selfie: Iraqi troops enter Mosul airport for first time since 2014
There was still morning mist in the air when Iraq’s Rapid Response units began their push to take Mosul airport from the Islamic State group on Thursday.
On a hilltop outside the village of Al-Buseif, the soldiers watched as helicopters fired rockets towards the airport and the adjacent sugar factory, held by the jihadist group since 2014.
“I love this sound,” said First Lieutenant Ahmed, as cannon fire snapped from the gunships, followed by roaring rocket fire.
A small crew of American soldiers worked to position mortars by their armoured vehicle as an air strike on Mosul in the distance sent grey smoke up in the sky.
An armoured ambulance belonging to the federal police blasted patriotic music, but the tunes were silenced after the troops noticed a suspected IS drone.
The jihadist group has regularly targeted Iraqi troops with grenades and shells dropped from drones, and the buzz of the pilotless aircraft now immediately puts soldiers on guard.
Several opened fire in the direction of the drone, but had no luck hitting it.
Gradually, they moved down the hilltop, some in armoured cars and others following on foot in the tracks of the vehicles ahead to avoid explosives embedded in the dirt, another favoured IS tactic.
At the bottom of the hill was Khirbeh, the last village between Al-Buseif and the airport.
It came under sustained fire in recent days, prompting its residents to flee as IS fighters withdrew, and the signs of the fighting were everywhere.
The iron front gates of homes were crumpled in heaps, and in a dirt pen five cows lay dead on their sides.
Federal police moved through buildings in the village, looking for explosives.
In one house they found homemade mortars, and in another a stack of photocopied issues of IS’s Anba magazine.
Bulldozers drove down to the edge of the village, at the southwestern corner of the airport, to pile dirt onto the damaged road leading along its edge and to the entrance.
As they worked, helicopters fired rocket after rocket into the sugar factory next to the airport, across the road being repaired by the bulldozers.
“They are targeting possible IS vehicle bombs in the factory. From up there they can see what we can’t see from here,” one soldier speculated as a huge blaze erupted sending thick black smoke into the air.
The wind lifted ash from the fire, and it danced down through the air, landing among the forces waiting to enter the airport.
Finally, the road was ready, and a convoy of Rapid Response armoured cars began moving slowly north towards the sugar factory and the airport entrance opposite it.
On the way they passed the dead body of an IS fighter, lying half-burned next to his motorbike.
As they moved past the factory, an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated next to the convoy’s lead vehicle, sending soldiers running back away from the blast.
No one was injured, but the soldiers began to strafe the sugar factory from several Humvees, firing round after round.
“There are snipers inside,” one soldier shouted, as those on foot took cover behind the armoured vehicles.
Eventually the firing stopped, and part of the convoy broke away to move into the airport.
At the entrance stood a building reduced almost entirely to rubble, with just a few pillars indicating it had once had a second floor.
All around, the airport was torn up and littered with debris, with the runways virtually unrecognisable and completely unusable.
“From the southern edge to the northern edge, it’s completely destroyed,” said Brigadier General Abbas al-Juburi, from the Rapid Response units.
“The terrorists started damaging it from the first moment the operation (to take Mosul) began.”
Inside, sapper units worked to locate IEDs, with one policeman hunched over with his face inches from the ground as he paced slowly forward, looking for warning signs.
While he worked, others celebrated. On the road outside, a group of soldiers grinned broadly in front of their Humvee as they posed for a selfie.
One held a black IS flag, brought along for the purpose, turned upside down as a gesture of defiance.
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