Erbil - When Islamic State (also know as ISIL and ISIS) forces send a huge, heavily armored tanker bomb with a suicide driver in it to break the lines of Peshmarga forces who can't seem to stop it despite hitting it with whatever weapons they have, what other choice is left for the crew of a Kurdish tank other than intercepting it by crashing into it?
This is the story of a brave group of three Peshmarga fighters - tank crew -, with a focus on the driver, who participated in the late January offensive on ISIS forces that resulted in the capture of some 600 square kilometers with over 200 ISIS militants around Mosul dam. In the two day battle, ISIS sent some 14 car bombs with suicide drivers behind the wheels. They have learned to armor their vehicles in a way that only direct hits from the heavy shells fired from a tank, or rockets fired from a warplane could destroy it. Or otherwise the anti-tank rocket propellers called MILAN of which Germany has delivered about a few dozens to the Peshmarga forces recently. Their tanker bombs are especially deadly as they load it with explosives and fill the tanker up with highly flammable fuel.
But sometimes the coalition warplanes, that have been effectively helping Kurdish forces on the ground to push back ISIS, are not there to help destroy those armored vehicle bombs. Bad weather, for example, is only one reason. And Kurds do not have a lot of tanks that can be deployed to many different fronts, besides, they are not accurate shooters especially for a moving object. And the MILANs are simply not enough for the 1000 plus kilometers of front-line between Peshmarga and ISIS in Iraq.
This is where the heroism of soldiers like Jamal Mohammed (tank driver), Mulazm Sarwan, and Aziz Ismael, the canon crew, comes into play to save the lives of some 200 brothers in arms.
|An ISIS tanker bomb that has been armored|
Peshmarga forces had dealt a heavy blow to ISIS in the large scale offensive on January 21 and 21, in the north west of Mosul city, the stronghold of ISIS in Iraq, where Jamal was deployed. They had just captured a village called Tal Khudr. "The Peshmarga fighters were taking a break to eat something in preparation of another offensive to capture more grounds" says Jamal in an interview with Xendan network - a Kurdish news and media outlet - "I was in the tank on the frontline. There was a hill lying ahead and we did not see what was behind."
All of a sudden, a tanker bomb appeared."
"As it approached, the Peshmarga fired on it with every weapon they had [Ak-47s, RPG rocket propellers, light and heavy anti-aircraft machine guns] but nothing affected it... The tank was not loaded at that moment, and it would have been too late before we could load it and fire. So, together with my two comrades we decided to intercept it with the tank before it reached the gathering of Peshmarga fighters"
|The tank surviving the explosion|
There were some 35 shells inside the tank. The explosion of which could tear not only human beings, but also the tank itself, into thousands of pieces. But Jamal and his crew had made their decision.
"The tanker bomb was coming down a narrow path. I turned the tank and headed straight at it. It did try to maneuver... but I was able to ram the tank into it, causing it to explode. Fire was all around me. I lowered and tried to cover my head when I realized my head was on fire...[moments later] I jumped out of the tank.. My friends were also safe, and the tank was still working... I thought to myself that may be ISIS will attack again, therefore I got into the tank again, turned it around and headed back to the line of Peshmarga forces."
Family of Jamal Anxious for his life
Jamal's family had been in contact with him via cellphone, but when the mobile ran out of battery, they worried. Mohammed Saleh, Jamal's half-paralyzed father, says what hurt him most was Jamal's two sons had heard some news that their father may have died in battle.
"They are little children, but they had felt something was going on. They came to me and asked 'Grandpa, is it true that Daesh (using the common Arabic acronym for ISIS) has beheaded dad?'" and that's when he says he couldn't hold it anymore and burst into tears.
Ready for death
Asked if he felt any fear when he was driving fast at the tanker bomb in those tense seconds, his answer is an unwavering "no"
"I looked at the tank with a fixed gaze that I remember the details of it. It had a grey color, and so heavily armored that the entire windshield was covered. I saw only one person in it [the driver]. I said the Shahada [testimony of Islamic faith], I thought that was the end for me and my friends, that's why when I stood on my feet after the explosion, I could not believe I was still alive"
Many Westerners have condemned alongside ISIS, Muslims and Islam itself, while in the same breath praising Kurds for their fight against the extremists, not realizing - or perhaps forgetting - that Kurds are predominantly Muslims too. They say their testimony of Islamic faith every day, pray five times per day, fast a month in the year, pay Zakat - form of tax but paid to the poor - and if can, also visit Mecca - the five pillars of Islam. But Kurds refuse the harsh brand of Islam the extremist group ISIS is desperately trying to impose on everybody; Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For centuries, Muslim Kurds have coexisted with followers of other faiths in this region; Christians, Shiites, Kakayis, Ezidis, and Zoroastrians. There were also many Jews in Kurdistan Region who lived peacefully with their Muslim Kurd neighbors before they were all expelled from Iraq by the Iraqi government in 1949, after Israel proclaimed a Jewish state in 1948. The Jewish neighborhood still stands as it was, in the middle of the capital of Kurdistan Region Erbil.
|Jamal at home with his head showing traces of burns.|
Moreover, since ISIS pushed into Iraqi territories in June last year, Kurdistan Region - despite its issues with Baghdad resulting in depriving Kurdistan of its budget share since early 2014 - has sheltered some 1.5 million refugees and IDPs (internally displaced people) among them dozens of thousands of Christians who fled Mosul city, thousands of Ezidis, and hundreds of thousands of Arabs - the figure is roughly one fifth of Kurdistan's population.
Ready to repeat what I did
Jamal ended up with burns to the head, a deaf ear caused by the sound of the explosion, and other injuries which were treated in Duhok hospital after he was transferred there. He is resting at home to recover. But he says he is ready to repeat what he did "tens of more times to stop ISIS advance... When ISIS wants to invade our land, take our honor, this calls for our resistance"
Jamal is not the only Peshmarga in his family. Five other brothers of Jamal are also Peshmarga and are on the frontlines.
"I am so proud of them" says Jamal's father. "My son has been able to save the lives of a group of Peshmarga"