Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

From A Mountain, Kurds Keep Watch On ISIS In Mosul

A mix of Arabs and Kurds are preparing for an eventual assault on Mosul, the key city in northern Iraq that the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have controlled since June. Training at a new camp near the front line, the men wear balaclavas to cover their faces, because they have family in Mosul and don't want to put their relatives at risk.
Ari Shapiro NPR
A mix of Arabs and Kurds are preparing for an eventual assault on Mosul, the key city in northern Iraq that the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State have controlled since June. Training at a new camp near the front line, the men wear balaclavas to cover their faces, because they have family in Mosul and don't want to put their relatives at risk.

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. ISIS flags fly 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-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 it's atop that mountain that they stand all day, behind banks of sand bags, listening to their enemy down below.

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 says Haidar, he means the airplane."

It's the code word for airplane.

And sure enough, we hear a low buzzing sound, though there's no airstrike this time. (The Kurds gave NPR permission to disclose this 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 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. He 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 there, you will see the hand, the head of ISIS," he says. "We kill them 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."

As they march, they wear balaclavas covering their faces. That's because most of them have relatives in Mosul. They will fight with their identities concealed so ISIS doesn't kill their families.

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.

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

The trainer promises: "We will."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.