On May 3rd, 2016, ISIS launched a major assault on the Christian town of Telskuf. The battle made headlines, mostly because of the result: an American was killed by enemy sniper fire.
U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed in action while helping Peshmerga forces retreat to safety. Keating’s incredible heroics in this and previous battles were well documented by the media. One thing not well documented about Keating’s death is who, exactly, he died protecting.
Telskuf is an ancient down in the Nineveh Plains, an area that dates back to Biblical days. It is a Christian town, that was completely overrun by ISIS as they paraded across northern Iraq on their way to taking control of Mosul.
Peshmerga quickly retook the town, but the close proximity to Mosul proved too dangerous to allow residents to return. So there it sat. Empty. A ghost town.
Safa Elyas and his family were among the civilians displaced during the madness. He and other Christian men in the community were not satisfied to tuck tail and run. They felt compelled to defend their home. Eventually he became a Commander in the NPF, a small civilian fighting force made up of Christians determined to defend their town from ISIS.
For months, they trained. They mostly served as watchmen, conducting patrols and searches of Telskuf to watch for jihadists who often tried to sneak into the abandoned village at night.
And then came the morning of May 3rd. Word spread quickly that Daesh, as ISIS is jeeringly referred to in Iraq, was mobilizing forces and preparing a major attack.
In the ensuing battle, which raged for hours, Keating would be called in as part of quick reaction force to help stave off the attack. He would’ve answered the call no matter what, but he was called to support not only Peshmerga – but a group of business owners, accountants, grocers, retailers, and dozens of other Christian civilians who vowed to defend their hometown to the death.
As Safa and his men engaged the enemy, things weren’t looking particularly promising. At first, they retreated out of the city, which American Matthew Van Dyke caught on some intense video.
He was in Telskuf at the time helping train NPF and other forces – they could only watch on as ISIS temporarily reclaimed it.
In an exclusive interview with Faithwire recalling the events of that day, Commander Safa gives a harrowing account, one that surely could’ve ended much differently if it weren’t for heroes like Navy SEAL Charles Keating.
Faithwire: Was this a surprise attack?
Safa: We had some information that ISIS is preparing for an attack before May 3rd. Information was that are preparing for a strong assault. At 4:50AM they started with shelling mortars and rockets towards our trench and the town. Here, I took our NPF and went to front trench(line). The area they have chosen was west of Batnaya (another Christian town).
At 5.20 AM their vehicles appeared west of Batnaya . Their front line was between 11 – 12 km wide. Then their tanks, Humvees and vehicles with doshkas (machine guns) appeared.
We were using our RBJ7, mortars and doshkas against their vehicles but it was useless since they have armored their already armored one with extra iron plate. At 6.10AM they got about 500-600 meters from us. At that time their bulldozers appeared pulling already made iron bridges to cross our ditch which is 4×4 meters.
Faithwire: Was this your first battle?
Safa: ISIS has attacked 6 or 7 times. But that one of May 3rd was the fiercest.
Faithwire: How many enemy were there?
Safa: They were more than 431 definitely – only 3 or 4 survived.
Faithwire: How long did the battle last?
Safa: The battle has lasted 5 or 6 hours. So, around 20% of the town destroyed and burned by rockets and jet bombarding. It ended with a strong victory, but there was a destruction inside the town.
Faithwire: Describe the Americans role in victory.
Safa: We went towards the trench when ISIS attacked, there were five Americans at the base. Those fought well, they have been driven out of the town and later attacked back towards Teleskuf. Other Americans were controlling drones. Those, when fight started, arrived with an armored vehicle and a machine gun. They fought until they run out of ammunition. The American martyr was killed at the battle by a sniper.
Faithwire: Have there been any more major type attacks on the front since May 3rd?
Safa: Yes, there was. They attacked again about a month after that big attack
Faithwire: Is there any hope that the operation to re-take Mosul will happen soon?
Safa: Yes, there is. We have information that a lot of activities are going on for that battle. ISIS has been defeated from south of Mosul front. I think those areas will be retaken within two months, after that it will be battle of Mosul city.
Faithwire: Is there any hope that Christians will once again be able to return to their homes? Or do they want to migrate to a different country?
Safa: I have prepared a research about that , I will be in USA to present a conference about Nineveh Plain. I think around 50% of people went to neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon and others are in Kurdistan. If there is organized reconstruction, stability and security, a lot of those (Christians) will come back. But if there were no services, safety and compensation, I think , nobody will come back and they will be frustrated and disappointed.
If the coalition could’ve gotten their act together, May 3rd likely would never have been. Now that ISIS has finally been expelled from Mosul, there’s growing hope that perhaps we’re seeing the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. And there’s light for Iraqi Christians as well, thanks to heroes like Charles Keating IV and countless others like him who fight – and die – for the righteous cause of freedom.