At Qayyarah Airfield West, a sprawling Iraq base 40 miles south of Mosul, a United States Army task force fires Himars satellite-guided rockets at targets. Apache attack helicopters, equipped with Hellfire missiles, stand ready to carry out their missions from the base’s airfield.
Not to mention the punishing airstrikes by American and allied warplanes and drones. A flurry of attacks were carried out by the American-led coalition in and around Mosul on Saturday, some involving the dropping of multiple bombs.
That firepower, the decision to position American advisers closer to the fighting, and the determined efforts of the Iraqi forces themselves have yielded some notable gains. Iraq’s federal police have fully secured the Mosul airport, while Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service seized a nearby military base last week.
That ground has been taken at a cost. Four Iraqis were killed in action and 53 wounded on Friday, according to an American official who requested anonymity to discuss the statistics, which have yet to be officially published. That is a small fraction of the approximately 500 dead and 3,000 wounded that Iraqi forces suffered in their push to secure the eastern half of the city during an earlier, 100-day offensive.
But the toughest part of the battle — the house-to-house combat in the narrow streets of the old part of western Mosul — still lies ahead. The Islamic State’s military tactics have also added to the challenge.
With the encouragement of the Americans, the Iraqi strategy has been to mount an attack on multiple axes to present the militants with more problems than they can handle. But the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has responded at times by concentrating its firepower on what it believes to be the Iraqis’ main line of attack.
In ISIS’ version of combined arms warfare, it has sent drones equipped with bombs even as it lobbed mortars and deployed suicide car bombers, whom the militants use as a primitive but often effective way to deliver precision-guided munitions.
Iraqi troops have been spooked by the ISIS drones, which sometimes hover in swarms of three to five. Neither the American nor the Iraqi military has an easy remedy. Trying to jam the drones might interfere with the Iraqis’ own communications, and it is not always easy to shoot them out of the sky.
So the United States military has used its firepower to try to mitigate the drone problem, just as it targeted ISIS’ car bomb factories, mortar teams and command posts. On Saturday, the American-led command announced that it had struck a “staging area” for launching drones and a cache of the weapons.
Qayyarah West, which was once known as Saddam Airbase and is called Q-West by American soldiers, is a pivotal base for the Mosul offensive. Runways at the air base, captured from the Islamic State in July, have been repaired by American combat engineers, which makes it an important logistics hub and a useful platform for projecting power.
First Lt. Mary Floyd, a 24-year-old officer who was raised in South Carolina, has been focused on doing exactly that. The commander of a platoon that fires Himars rockets, she helped flatten a five-story building the American military says Islamic State militants were using as a command post shortly before the Iraqis began their offensive to take western Mosul.
Over the past week, she said, her platoon launched rockets toward Mosul 10 to 20 times. Military officers have a name for the two platoons that fire Himars that are deployed at the base: Task Force Thor.
Firing rockets into a densely populated city is a tricky proposition. But the rockets’ satellite guidance, perpendicular angle of attack and the fact that they can accommodate a relatively small warhead have led the military to turn to it during previous urban fights, including the 2006 battle for Ramadi and the 2007 struggle for the control of Haifa Street in Baghdad.
The United States is not the only nation supporting the Iraqis by firing artillery. French artillery has been active as well.
Hamam al-Alil was taken by Iraqi forces in November, and a mass grave of ISIS victims was later uncovered near an agricultural college there. Now, United States Army crews live and even sleep inside their Paladin artillery units, waiting for orders to fire.
Captain Ross declined to say precisely how many rounds his soldiers had fired. But he said they were ready to shoot day and night and could “range the entire city.”