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From A Mountain, Kurds Keep Watch On ISIS In Mosul

Kurdish peshmerga fighters stand guard on Bashiqah, a mountain overlooking the outskirts of Mosul. ISIS militants have controlled the key city in northern Iraq since June.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters stand guard on Bashiqah, a mountain overlooking the outskirts of Mosul. ISIS militants have controlled the key city in northern Iraq since June.

Imagine standing on top of a mountain, looking down at your home in the valley below, and being unable to go there — even for a visit.

That's the situation for some Iraqi Kurds from the city of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, controls Mosul, flying its flags over the outskirts of the strategic northern Iraqi town.

A major military offensive is planned in the coming months to retake Mosul from ISIS, a senior U.S. military official says. The operation is expected to take place in April or May, and involve some 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqi troops.

For now, the Kurds must wait. They control the mountain that overlooks the city, and atop that mountain that they stand all day, behind banks of sand bags, listening to their enemy below.

Hussein Ali (foreground) is among the Kurdish fighters standing guard atop Bashiqah, a mountain northwest of Mosul, Iraq. He has been here since August and is desperate to retake the city from Islamic State fighters.
Ari Shapiro / NPR
Hussein Ali (foreground) is among the Kurdish fighters standing guard atop Bashiqah, a mountain northwest of Mosul, Iraq. He has been here since August and is desperate to retake the city from Islamic State fighters.

Sometimes, the walkie-talkie chatter is something as mundane as men making plans to meet up for lunch. Other times, it's not so benign.

The men below say, "Haidar is coming your way."

"Did you hear the sound?" our translator says. "Haidar, when he say Haidar, he mean the airplane."

And sure enough, we hear a low buzzing sound, though there's no airstrike this time. (The Kurds gave NPR permission to disclose the Islamic State's codeword for "airplane" and other information.)

'This Is My Village'

At night sometimes, the Kurds say they listen to the men down below order specific women — by name — to be sent to them. They are women and girls who have been taken captive from the villages that ISIS conquered. It drives the Kurdish fighters crazy not to be able to do anything.

ISIS overtook Mosul in June; Hussein Ali has been on top of this mountain since August and is desperate to go fight.

"This is my village, I want to control my village," he says. "I don't want to stay here."

Last week ISIS sent a few suicide bombers climbing up the hill. Ali says he spotted them through the binoculars.

One of the Kurds posted a video to Facebook: a few missed shots, then a direct hit, a ball of flame, and cheers.

A fighter named Mohammed Sadiq Aza says it happens pretty regularly.

"If you just go down here, you will see the hand, the head of the ISIS," he says. "We kill him all the time here."

A doctor named Ahmed Hamid Saleh says that since the summer, a handful of Kurdish fighters at this mountaintop station have been killed, and some have also been wounded.

Anticipation For The Upcoming Battle

Farther down the mountain, just behind the front line, preparations for the planned assault on Mosul are intensifying.

Volunteer reservists — a mix of Kurds and Arabs from Mosul — are learning to march and shoot at a new training camp. They chant "ISIS, ISIS, we are coming, from every street to every house."

It's difficult to get any news from Mosul, but one military trainer says he manages to chat with his brother on Facebook every few days. His brother's family spends all day in the house. They say there are "no schools, no markets, nothing — bad life."

His brother urges him: "Come back to Mosul, and attack ISIS."

The trainer promises: "We will."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.