First film from ground level of RAF strike in Iraq
We had been driving for about six hours when we reached Rabia.
A small agricultural town of Kurds and Arabs nestling along Iraq’s border with Syria, Rabia’s squat mud houses belie the town’s importance: this is a major transit point for Islamic State fighters and their supplies. It is only 70 miles from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and like Mosul it was captured by IS back in June. Take back Rabia, and you begin to cut off the jihadists in Iraq from their power base across the border.
A Major-General in the Kurdish peshmerga had arranged a pickup truck of Kurdish fighters to accompany us. It seemed the only safe way to avoid falling into the hands of IS combatants who might still be lurking in the shadows.
We approached the town through a landscape of abandoned and destroyed villages. The militants are demolishing what they leave behind them as Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters make modest advances.
Village destroyed by IS. They are detonating buildings and setting roadside bombs as they retreat from Rabia, Iraq: pic.twitter.com/nRTcCpKpHN
— Jonathan Rugman (@jrug) October 1, 2014
At several points, our armoured cars ploughed across the brown earth of harvested fields: IS has planted bombs on the roads and seems determined to leave as many casualties as possible in its wake, so certain stretches of highway are best avoided. Three car suicide bombers blew themselves up on Tuesday, when the Kurdish offensive began.
Artillery and ambulances were scattered across the gently rolling hills. On the outskirts of town, about a hundred Kurdish fighters were lounging about, smoking, chatting, waiting for orders. An armoured truck disgorged a dead man, stretched out beneath a red blanket – a peshmerga who had been shot in the head by an IS sniper.
One building stood out. About 500 metres from us, a tall and newly completed hospital. The last redoubt of IS jihadists holed up inside. They had been mortaring from here and we saw their shells landing in the fields not far behind us, kicking up thick plumes of dust.
The Kurdish fighters seemed transfixed by the hospital. They had their mobile phone cameras at the ready, as if they knew something spectacular was about to happen. And about that they were right.
At 3.45 pm, the sound of coalition fighter jets grew louder than before, and we watched as a British Tornado dropped two guided bombs.
The building shook and billowed smoke and fire. The Kurds told each other how marvellous this was – and then they told me how grateful they were for foreign air support. These men appear lamentably short of weapons and training, but now they have friends in high places that their enemy does not.
Our Channel 4 News cameraman, Stephen Hird, distinguished himself filming Israeli air strikes on buildings in Gaza this summer. There could have been no better choice to catch this extraordinary moment on film, for the first time in Iraq since the RAF was in action here during the 2003 war.
The Ministry of Defence described the attack as “successful” but, as we know from Gaza, when it comes to hitting buildings in urban areas these things are rarely so clear cut.
We don’t know if there were civilian casualties: the peshmerga said they feared the jihadists had forced women to accompany them as human shields. IS may have been hiding in the basement, so perhaps there were survivors.
We edited our television report while sitting on boxes in the car park of a Kurdish army base beside the River Tigris, just after sunset. It was a relatively safe place to be, though the power connection with the car engine kept cutting out and I kept losing my microphone in the dark.
Follow @jrug on Twitter