The makeshift mortar looked like something from an old pirate ship, and it took the Kurdish fighters several days to figure out how to use the improvised weapon seized in a skirmish with ISIS.
When they finally did, they crouched behind sandbags and launched a series of homemade shells found with the device at a village held by the terrorist group a mile away. As each projectile blasted off from the 8-foot tube mounted on a pair of tires, culminating in a puff of smoke on the horizon, members of Kurdistan’s army, known as the Peshmerga, laughed and slapped each other on the back.
”I hope they felt it like I felt the pain I felt in my arm," said a soldier named Ali, still nursing a wound from the recent fight near Sinjar where the curious armament had been found.
The incident, which occurred last week in Kurdish-held territory on the plains just north of Mosul, typified the resourcefulness of both sides. A makeshift rocket launcher crafted from spare parts and ingenuity found in the aftermath of a battle and then turned on its builders.
It was also a snapshot of the clashes occurring in the villages that lie between ISIS’ Iraqi stronghold of Mosul and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. To the south, Iraqi government forces backed by U.S. air power are fighting to retake Fallujah. In neighboring Syria, the de facto capital of ISIS’ caliphate, Raqqa, is under siege from Syrian, Russian, U.S. and Kurdish forces. But in northern Iraq, the battle for Mosul looms, with near-daily skirmishes serving as deadly dress rehearsals.
Iraqis caught in the crossfire – Christians, Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as Yazidi and other minorities – do their best to survive as they wait for the coming all-out assault on the black-clad jihadist army.
“Our soldiers believe in the people here and they see the need to protect the people,” Brig. Gen. Omer Khalid told FoxNews.com. “We see what ISIS has done with Mosul and [Sinjar] and the people there and we don’t want that to happen here.”
Khalid spoke in Hogna, a tiny village on the outskirts of Zummar City and the largest Kurdish-held base near Mosul. On wind-swept, rolling hills dotted with sparse vegetation, the Peshmerga keep watch on ISIS soldiers inhabiting the village in the distance.
For soldiers earning the equivalent of $200 per month to face off against the world’s most dangerous terrorist army, morale-boosting moments such as the firing of the strange mortar break the tense monotony.
Last weekend, ISIS mounted a rare midday raid on the Kurds dug in at Hogna, peppering the base with mortar fire. When the smoke cleared, no Kurds were injured. But the nearly reflexive donning of surgical masks was an unmistakable sign that the threat of a chemical attack is always on their minds.
The attack left the Kurds itching to return fire, but equipment and ammunition is short. International aid is channeled through Baghdad, which maintains often strained relations with the northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
“We need bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms,” said Khalid.
For now, a homemade mortar, stolen from the enemy and turned on him, would have to do.