Near al-Nasr village, Iraq – Four 120mm mortar launchers blasted, one after another, leaving a cloud of dust as Iraqi soldiers cheered and whistled.
The mortars were targeted just a couple of kilometres away, towards al-Nasr village, which is under the control of fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
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Several dozen Iraqi soldiers in armoured vehicles, many hoisting Iraqi flags, awaited orders to charge forward.
A mix of excitement and frustration was in the air.
This was the scene over the weekend, during what Iraqi defence officials say was the first episode in a series of battles to recapture the northern Nineveh province, including Mosul, from ISIL, which swept this territory in a lightning offensive through Iraq in June 2014.
The challenging fight over the hilltop village metaphorically illustrates the uphill battle that the Iraqi forces face in defeating ISIL in Nineveh.
The pace of the offensive has been slow. We have been shocked by ISIL snipers and planted bombs.
At one point, the soldiers near Nasr village burst into applause as they watched a cloud of smoke and dust from an unknown blast rise above the village.
They said the explosion was likely from an artillery shell or missile fired by another Iraqi army unit or US troops stationed nearby.
The blast was so dramatic that Major General Najm al-Jobouri, the commander of the Iraqi army’s Division 15, could not hide his euphoria.
“This was not your hit,” he told soldiers. “This was a hit by God.”
Jobouri’s division had been given the critical task of retaking the area between the Makhmour and al-Qayyara towns, south of Mosul.
Makhmour is currently under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but Qayyara, which is home to oil fields and an airbase, remains under the control of ISIL.
So far, progress has been slow for the Iraqi troops. After three days of fighting last week, they managed to retake the three villages of Koudila, Karmerdi and Kherabardan, but as of Sunday morning, the forces have not yet been able to retake the strategic hilltop village of Nasr.
On Saturday, the Iraqi forces briefly entered the village but pulled out due to heavy resistance from ISIL fighters. “The pace of the offensive has been slow,” Hussein, an Iraqi sergeant who would not provide his last name, told Al Jazeera. “We have been shocked by their snipers and planted bombs, which are plentiful.”
Suicide attacks by ISIL fighters in explosive-laden vehicles have also slowed progress for Iraqi forces. On Friday, ISIL dispatched at least two suicide car bombers near Koudila village, according to a senior Kurdish military source. Hussein said ISIL fighters had dug a trench, forcing Iraqi forces to enter the village on foot.
Over the past few days, casualties in the area among the Iraqi army and their local allies include at least three dead and 20 injured.
The scene near Nasr village on the weekend indicated that Iraqi forces still have a long way to go in terms of readiness and organisation.
At one point, panic overshadowed the group amid rumours of incoming ISIL mortars; soldiers rushed away in a hurry, their vehicles kicking up clouds of dust. But no mortars came, and the soldiers soon returned.
The incident was indicative of disorganisation and lack of proper intelligence.
The relationship between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces near Nasr village can be best described as a tense cooperation. The Kurdish units provide a support role, and are not actively participating in combat in the area.
“They [the Iraqi army] have got all these weapons and [armoured] vehicles, but have not been able to take this village,” said Major General Ziryan Shekhwasani, the deputy commander of the area’s Kurdish forces.
“The question is at the current pace of their advances, how long will it take for them to reach Mosul?”
The Iraqi army has also been aided by local tribal forces who are part of the Popular Mobilisation Units. One of these fighters, Mohammed, appeared upset after he returned from the battle in Nasr.
“We pushed them out of the village, but they returned again half-an-hour ago,” he said in an angry tone.”I’m angry because there is no air support … We’re fighting them, but the warplanes are not supporting us.”
US-led coalition aircraft could be heard hovering nearby, but no air strikes landed in Nasr when Al Jazeera was at the site on Friday afternoon, perhaps due to the strong wind and dusty conditions. A coalition statement said eight air strikes were carried out in the area in Nineveh where the Iraqi army and its allies are currently conducting their offensive.
“We have got the means to succeed,” said an Iraqi army colonel who spoke on condition of anonymity. “As soon as the weather conditions get better, we should be able to charge forward.”