Mr. Denton, a photographer for The New York Times, was with Iraqi counterterrorism forces as they began pushing toward Mosul last week.
BARTELLA, Iraq — Our convoy had already been targeted by suicide car bombs three times, over a long day spent under fire. So the Iraqi forces had brought up a tank, and its main gun kept scanning the road ahead toward Mosul.
But the shouts started coming from behind us instead, and when I turned to look, I knew right away: Here was Bomb No. 4, seemingly out of nowhere. By the time I saw it, the vehicle was maybe 70 feet away.
We were with a unit of elite Iraqi counterterrorism forces, who on the morning of Oct. 20 were making their first moves in the broader battle to take Mosul back from the Islamic State.
The commandos’ first big objective was to surround and clear Bartella, a militant-held town about six miles east of the outer fringes of Mosul. Starting out from an Iraqi base around 5 a.m., the troops began pushing east along the main highway that links the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, with Mosul.Continue reading the main story
Under peaceful circumstances, that drive would take maybe an hour and a half. But it would take the unit we were with nearly all day just to push three miles into Islamic State territory to the western edge of Bartella, where the troops were to cut off the Islamic State fighters holed up in the town, keeping them from escaping to Mosul or being reinforced from there. There were bombs all along the road, and nearly every village along the way would be a source of attack.
An Iraqi reporter for The Times and I were traveling with a television crew from the British news service ITN. We climbed into a huge Iraqi Army MRAP — a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle — in the middle of a large convoy of vehicles preparing to leave for Bartella.Continue reading the main story
As we set out, though, the crew was told that our vehicle would be leading the way, transporting the ordnance disposal experts who would be working to clear the convoy’s routes through the fields and villages south of the highway.
I was nervous, but there was no time to stop and figure out how to shift to vehicles behind us. We hadn’t gone far, but we were already taking fire from different directions.
After cutting south, the convoy, now accompanied by an Iraqi Army M1A1 Abrams tank, headed off the road for the relative safety of the open fields, with the expectation that there would be fewer mines and improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s.
As we moved at about five miles per hour, passing by the small, sun-baked hamlets that dot the approaches to Bartella, we increasingly came under machine-gun fire from concealed Islamic State positions. Bullets kicked up dust around our convoy and pinged off the vehicle’s armored exterior and glass, leaving spider-web-like cracks in the thick windows.Continue reading the main story
Volleys of mortar shells crashed around us, the militants looking to find their range among the crawling line of vehicles, but never succeeding.
The vehicle commander, Lt. Muhammad Altimimi, repeatedly pointed out suspicious buildings and the fleeting shadows of Islamic State fighters moving among points of concealment, encouraging the Abrams tank and an armored bulldozer to push ahead of us.Continue reading the main story
The first moment of tension occurred as we came upon the first stretch of paved road that the convoy had to cross.
The bulldozer went ahead, scraping away some of the pavement and building up a small berm to protect the convoy from any suicide bombers who might try to hit the dozens of Humvees as they traversed the road.
A hamlet a little more than 200 yards up the road seemed to be an ideal staging point for such a vehicle, I remember thinking. Our vehicle crossed the road without incident, but we were soon stuck in a field, calling for the bulldozer again to fill in a trench blocking our way, dug by the Islamic State for just that reason.Continue reading the main story
The arrival of the first suicide car bomb was heralded by the sound of machine guns and vehicle-mounted grenade launchers going fully automatic. Still waiting for the bulldozer to complete its work, we had pulled over into a barren field, more than 300 yards from any buildings.Continue reading the main story
The suicide vehicle gained speed on a gentle decline from the hamlet that had seemed dangerously close, and tried to veer off-road toward a cluster of vehicles just behind us. Weighed down by steel plates painted a dull green and coyote brown, and by its explosive payload, the car careened clumsily into the field, hitting a small ditch and flipping over.
I photographed as the Iraqis fired at the overturned vehicle, sitting like a flipped turtle in the field, until it erupted in a huge explosion, raising the dust around us.Continue reading the main story
After the trench was filled, we were underway again, making a right turn and now heading north toward the commandos’ objective: the western edge of Bartella, and the four-lane highway that links Erbil to Mosul.
Almost as soon as we did so, the convoy began taking even heavier fire. Bullets again pinged off the vehicle, and mortar shells sent up plumes of dust around us. The front right tire of our MRAP was shot out, but the crew continued to drive forward, the vehicle’s limp becoming more pronounced as we bounced over the uneven terrain.
Lieutenant Altimimi told everyone in the vehicle, journalists included, to watch through the windows for suicide car bombs. Yelling over the radio indicated that the back of the convoy had destroyed another suicide vehicle, and a steep plume of smoke and dust was hanging in the sky less than a mile away.Continue reading the main story
We soon spotted a pickup truck parked in the shadows of an alleyway between a nearby set of buildings, and halted, just short of another stretch of paved road. Suddenly, a different vehicle, stacked with painted, makeshift armor, lumbered out from behind the buildings, making a left as it tried to pick up speed toward us.
The MRAP’s driver panicked as he tried to maneuver our damaged vehicle farther back, gunning the engine and finally finding gear as the suicide car bomb tried to leave the road.
From the limited visibility in the back of our rapidly bouncing and turning vehicle, I was just able to glimpse the car bomb as it seemed to get stuck in a small ditch, maybe 50 or 60 yards from us. The Iraqi tank had moved up beside us and took the opening for an easier shot with its main gun. The suicide vehicle blew apart, the concussion wave rocking our vehicle.
Everyone inside erupted in applause. That one had gotten close.
We limped on, eventually reaching the main Erbil-Mosul road leading west from Bartella.Continue reading the main story
With the front right tire almost completely disintegrated, we could barely move at more than a crawl. The ordnance removal technicians worked ahead of us, in coordination with the bulldozer, the tank and a few Humvees. Over just a few hundred yards of road, they cleared four big I.E.D.s, while Islamic State fighters kept shooting at the convoy.
The Iraqis answered with MK-19 grenade launchers and other vehicle-mounted weapons.Continue reading the main story
There was little for us to do other than wait in the relative safety of the vehicle while the Iraqi forces worked to clear the area and set up a security perimeter as the sun went down in the late afternoon.Continue reading the main story
We thought that moment had come when an officer knocked on the rear doors and, having removed his body armor, invited us to step out of the MRAP.
“What are you doing here?” he joked. The gunfire had stopped, and the bulldozer had built an earthen berm blocking the main highway. The Iraqi tank set up behind it with its main gun turret pointed toward Mosul, keeping watch for another vehicle bomb.
It seemed like a relatively reasonable time to photograph the column and surroundings from outside the vehicle, as soldiers milled about and began to check the buildings they would probably be occupying that night.Continue reading the main story
I climbed down and began to take photographs, making sure that I kept moving and was near cover, in case there were any snipers left in the area.
I was walking back to our vehicle when someone screamed in Arabic, “Car bomb!” As I turned, I saw it, like an armadillo covered in steel plates, lumbering toward us from a narrow alleyway on the edge of town. It was about 70 or 80 feet away, and began making an almost lazy left turn, as if it were merging into traffic.
As everyone began to run, and the soldiers opened up on the vehicle, my only thought was to get low and find cover. I tried to get behind the nearest Humvee, as quickly as I could run in a crouch.
I was in the open for maybe four or five seconds, but that was too long.
The explosion was huge, and I felt something hit the top of my right wrist. Somehow there was no pain yet — in the moment I actually thought of a teacher’s ruler smacking my wrist. Hard to explain.
I stopped behind the Humvee I’d been aiming for, with two Iraqi soldiers ahead of me. One of them was screaming, checking his body for wounds and in a clear state of panic.Continue reading the main story
I looked down at my wrist and could briefly see the bone through a deep gash before the wound filled with blood.
I put my hand over it to apply pressure. One part of me was fixated on moving my fingers and checking the motion in my wrist, while the rest was worried about the possibility of a follow-up attack.
Another Iraqi soldier came up to me through the dust and smoke. He pulled off one of the tourniquets I keep on my body armor and started trying to apply it to my arm. I waved him off — there was no sign of an arterial bleed.
I made my way back to the MRAP, where one of the journalists from ITN helped me apply a compression bandage. I was loaded into the flatbed of a Humvee with Iraqi soldiers who had also been wounded, and we were driven back behind their lines.
I’d been incredibly lucky, and the wound looked worse than it was. There was no shrapnel lodged inside, no ligaments or tendons torn, and an X-ray at the hospital in Erbil later that night showed no signs of broken bones.
It was hard not to think about what could have happened, though. Even a slightly worse alternative would have changed everything: If the shrapnel had hit just an inch to the left, I could have lost my right hand, or the use of it.