On Mosul frontline, Iraqi soldiers keen to take on IS
Ali Rash (Iraq) (AFP) - Ammunition strapped across his chest and armed with a Dragunov sniper rifle, Ahmed Thair Jassem of Iraq's 9th Armoured Division boasts of the jihadists he has killed in the battle for Mosul.
"I aim for the head, because the jihadists often wear bullet-proof vests, but they never put on a helmet," the smiling soldier says, recounting fighting in the Christian town of Qaraqosh just east of Mosul.
As Iraqi forces have advanced on Mosul, the last bastion of the Islamic State group in Iraq, elite forces like the Counter-Terrorism Service and the Rapid Response Division, or Kurdish peshmerga fighters, have garnered much of the attention.
But for the grunts of the 9th Division, the role being played by traditional army units is no less important.
Jassem recalls being in position on a roof about 400 metres (yards) from the entrance to an IS tunnel during the battle for Qaraqosh, which Iraqi forces were able to seize early in the offensive they launched on October 17.
"I saw six Daesh men come out. I let them advance a short way and opened fire," he says, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
"They ran, but I picked them off one by one, except the last one, who was wounded in the arm and was able to run back into his hole like a rat."
After advancing towards the outskirts of Mosul along with other Iraqi forces, the 9th Division were in the village of Ali Rash, about eight kilometres (five miles) from the city.
Their advance stopped due to bad weather, soldiers took photographs with the bodies of three jihadists, one almost completely burned.
"We are an armoured division, and the power of our tanks and artillery forced the jihadists to flee, or crushed them," Staff Lieutenant General Qassem al-Maliki, the division commander, told AFP.
"We are present on all axes of advance, north, east and south," Maliki says, joking that: "We are not as good at public relations as our comrades."
The division is armed with Abrams and T-72 tanks in addition to artillery and one of the guns roared as it fired a round toward Mosul.
"We had information that a group of Daesh (IS) were meeting in a house. We destroyed it," said Haider Saleh, a soldier who proudly displayed the scar on his throat that he received from a bullet during the battle for Tikrit last year.
Firas Daham, another 9th Division soldier, is also proud.
"Our finest feat of arms so far was to have liberated Qaraqosh for our Christian brothers," he says, referring to its large Christian population before IS forced them to convert or flee.
"But it is only in Mosul that we will be able to celebrate our victory."