An old soviet era tank hidden in a house in the town of Tabzawa about 4 kilometers away from Mosul city, ISIS cut out the wall of the house and reversed the tank into it to avoid detection by collation forces fighter jets and drones. (Ghazi Balkiz/CNN)
Ghazi Balkiz/CNN
An old soviet era tank hidden in a house in the town of Tabzawa about 4 kilometers away from Mosul city, ISIS cut out the wall of the house and reversed the tank into it to avoid detection by collation forces fighter jets and drones. (Ghazi Balkiz/CNN)
Now playing
03:48
Experience the front lines of the Mosul offensive
CNN
Now playing
04:32
Mosul survivors search for loved ones
Now playing
01:01
Fleeing ISIS in Mosul: Their faces say it all
Haider al-Abadi Mosul 7/9/17
Iraqi PM Office
Haider al-Abadi Mosul 7/9/17
Now playing
02:01
Iraq's PM claims Mosul liberated from ISIS
Iraq's federal police members wave Iraq's national flag as they celebrate in the Old City of Mosul on July 9, 2017 after the government's announcement of the "liberation" of the embattled city. Iraq declared victory against the Islamic State group in Mosul on July 9 after a gruelling months-long campaign, dealing the biggest defeat yet to the jihadist group.
FADEL SENNA/Getty Images
Iraq's federal police members wave Iraq's national flag as they celebrate in the Old City of Mosul on July 9, 2017 after the government's announcement of the "liberation" of the embattled city. Iraq declared victory against the Islamic State group in Mosul on July 9 after a gruelling months-long campaign, dealing the biggest defeat yet to the jihadist group.
Now playing
05:33
US General: Iraq must continue to attack ISIS
Counter Terror Service (CTS) Troops climb a mound of rubble to reach a house turned fighting position just 50 meters from the Tigris river. They are engaged in fierce clashes to push out ISIS's remaining pockets of resistance.
Salma Abdelaziz/CNN
Counter Terror Service (CTS) Troops climb a mound of rubble to reach a house turned fighting position just 50 meters from the Tigris river. They are engaged in fierce clashes to push out ISIS's remaining pockets of resistance.
Now playing
03:03
Mosul liberation comes at a price
Now playing
01:05
On the ground in Mosul
An Iraqi rescue worker gestures towards bodies wrapped in plastic in the Mosul al-Jadida area on March 26, 2017, following air strikes in which civilians have been reportedly killed during an ongoing offensive against the Islamic State group.  
Iraq is investigating air strikes in west Mosul that reportedly killed large numbers of civilians in recent days, a military spokesman said.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi rescue worker gestures towards bodies wrapped in plastic in the Mosul al-Jadida area on March 26, 2017, following air strikes in which civilians have been reportedly killed during an ongoing offensive against the Islamic State group. Iraq is investigating air strikes in west Mosul that reportedly killed large numbers of civilians in recent days, a military spokesman said.
Now playing
01:55
CNN on the ground in Mosul, Iraq
Now playing
02:10
A history of ISIS in Mosul
Now playing
01:33
Arwa and Mattar: A friendship forged in fear
iraq mosul us investigate claims civilians deaths damon lklv_00001724.jpg
AFP/Getty Images
iraq mosul us investigate claims civilians deaths damon lklv_00001724.jpg
Now playing
02:21
US Com.: 'chance' Iraq strike killed civilians
TOPSHOT - Relatives mourn as bodies of Iraqi residents of west Mosul killed in an airstrike targeting Islamic State (IS) group jihadists are placed and covered with blankets on carts on March 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS        (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - Relatives mourn as bodies of Iraqi residents of west Mosul killed in an airstrike targeting Islamic State (IS) group jihadists are placed and covered with blankets on carts on March 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:57
Cmdr.: Fair chance US airstrike hit civilians
Now playing
02:22
A walk through the devastation of West Mosul
Now playing
02:17
CNN reports during Iraqi, ISIS firefight
iraq mosul us investigate claims civilians deaths damon lklv_00001724.jpg
AFP/Getty Images
iraq mosul us investigate claims civilians deaths damon lklv_00001724.jpg
Now playing
02:49
Over 100 bodies pulled from Mosul rubble
Tanks and armored vehicles of the Iraqi forces, supported by the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitaries, advance towards the village of Sheikh Younis, south of Mosul, as the offensive to retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State group fighters commenced on February 19, 2017.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Tanks and armored vehicles of the Iraqi forces, supported by the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitaries, advance towards the village of Sheikh Younis, south of Mosul, as the offensive to retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State group fighters commenced on February 19, 2017.
Now playing
01:34
Battle for Mosul: the one thing to know
Now playing
01:38
US frontline clinic treats Mosul's wounded

Story highlights

Iraqi fighters are the literal tip of the spear in the global war on ISIS

As they get closer to Mosul, the Iraqis' mission becomes more dangerous

Bazwaya, Iraq CNN —  

It is across the ghostly silence and dense dust of the berms between ISIS’ Mosul and advancing Iraqi special forces that the final chapter of ISIS’ extinction in Iraq will play out.

Yet at dusk on Saturday, the 2 kilometers between the US-trained Golden Division and the medieval world of the so-called caliphate suddenly were aflame with the loathing and terror of the world’s war on ISIS.

Tracer rounds flashed across the horizon; the sparks and thud of countless explosions rocked the tiny village of Bazwaya, split in two by the closing stages of this battle. Ferocious and constant, it came closer and closer to the Iraqi base where we filmed from a rooftop.

By the end of the fearsome exchange – which fell silent after heavy artillery flew over our heads – a staggering 14 Iraqi soldiers were dead, some of the worst losses sustained by the unit.

00:57 - Source: CNN
Why are these neon streams ablaze in Iraq?

Tip of the spear

When Maj. Hussien Hussien’s Golden Division unit piled in to Bazwaya, they arrived as veterans of the war on ISIS. Having fought in Ramadi and Falluja, Hussien has a series of scars on his right ear from a rocket-propelled grenade attack months earlier.

They are the literal tip of the spear in the global war on the militant group. Despite the risk of being flanked, the men defiantly hold a tiny strip of land jutting perilously into ISIS territory.

ISIS using human shields in Mosul

The Golden Division moved into the town a few days earlier, putting them within 2 or 3 kilometers of the area near the Mosul city limits known as Gogjali. Hussien aggressively takes on ISIS positions, using tanks to pile into the dust at night and fire on areas from which his outposts are harassed. We watch as a series of rounds hit distant buildings marked by flags. In the darkness, we cannot tell if the flags are white to denote civilians, or black to denote those accused of using them as human shields: ISIS.

Hussien and his men use videos filmed from sniper scopes and Google maps to target their prey. The coalition has liaisons nearby, but not the volume of technology required to fully map out ISIS across this huge front.

02:19 - Source: CNN
Inside the tunnels of ISIS

US-trained troops

The young Iraqis who make up much of this force have gone through American training and are buoyant when we join them. One, nicknamed Ahmed Bullet (there are six Ahmeds in the unit and his trainers had to distinguish among them) jokes in limited English that he doesn’t like Michael Jackson. But, he says before emptying his mounted machine gun into the desert, he does like US Special Forces.

These men have been in the fight against ISIS for months. Their main question as they enter this closing chapter of the war: What level of bloodshed will they have to cause to defeat the enemy?

How ISIS is fighting back

Reminders of ISIS

A room in a house in the town of Bazwaya, near Mosul city, was used as an ISIS classroom. The Arabic writing on the whiteboard is a lesson about how to use grenades.
Ghazi Balkiz/CNN
A room in a house in the town of Bazwaya, near Mosul city, was used as an ISIS classroom. The Arabic writing on the whiteboard is a lesson about how to use grenades.

The town of Bazwaya itself is still haunted by its recent occupiers. An old school was used to teach grenade tactics, with instructions written on the whiteboard. Its doorbells are marked by graffiti that bans “the strike force” from entering, and half-prepared food rots in the kitchen. Nobody left here slowly.

Elsewhere, a stolen Syrian army tank hides in the basement of a house, its ISIS driver having simply reversed it into the building basement to keep it out of the view of drones. A Predator had flown above moments earlier, a reminder of the Coalition’s presence.

The town is split along its main road by a huge tunnel, wide and tall enough to drive a motorbike along. It was dug by an excavator and then torched by the Iraqi special forces. As we are there, soldiers discover newer tunnels, some with shelters attached.

Sniper fire

A section of an ISIS tunnel at the town of Bazwaya destroyed by a unit from the Golden Division, an elite Iraqi forces division.
Ghazi Balkiz/CNN
A section of an ISIS tunnel at the town of Bazwaya destroyed by a unit from the Golden Division, an elite Iraqi forces division.

At one outpost, Alpha Company has a snapshot of how resilient their foe can be. Capt. Ala, using his scope, can regularly see his adversary hundreds of meters away behind sandy berms. Mustafa Sniper, as he is known, checks the top of the berm, and suddenly several rounds crack through the air above their heads. ISIS fighters are using a truck that allows them to pop up over the berm, open fire, and then repeat the procedure from another position moments later.

The soldiers, visibly nervous owing to how close their adversary is, try to fire back, but the moving target slows progress. “Where is the vehicle?” one shouts, as he loads a heavy machine gun. The exchange continues for 10 minutes.

Death at dusk

At dusk the unit takes its hardest blow. At one point tracer rounds race fiercely back and forth across the street we are based upon. It was impossible to tell which blast hit Ala’s men, but several rockets struck a room where the unit slept, making the largest contribution to a death toll of 14 that night.

One witness described how the strength of the blast tore limbs from bodies. Another witness said he stumbled over body parts when he entered the room in the dark.

That night we observe the wounded rushed back and treated on a large carpet pad outdoors near the base. Many dead, in blankets in the back of pickup trucks, race past us. The Iraqi army, like many military services, does not want its casualties filmed.

’You guys are heroes’

The losses leave the unit part furious, part numb. Hussien races to the front to try to bolster the defenses. Ahmed Bullet walks silently around the base, his cheerful nature subdued. An argument erupts among some soldiers about which radio channel they were meant to be on.

Once the gunfire slows, Hussien returns to his men and tries to raise morale. He is handed the weapons of the fallen and asks for their body armor. He puts his hand on Ala’s shoulder and tells his men: “You guys are heroes, and none of you should be affected by this. Those suicide bombers are nothing.”

It is a moment of great loss, tempered by grief for those already gone in previous battles and the knowledge that this comes 2 kilometers from Mosul’s city limits, with another 7 to go before the city center.