‘They have formidable fortifications,’ an officer told me. IS had built a berm – a raised earthwork bank – with a trench behind it, and then another berm, all laid with IEDs. ‘In a whole day of fighting,’ the officer said, ‘we advanced no more than 150 metres.’
He pinched and zoomed a satellite map on his tablet. The Circle is the gateway to western Mosul, the oldest part of the city. The eastern part, on the other side of the Tigris, had been retaken by the end of January. Western Mosul, with its dense neighbourhoods and narrow streets, was a bigger challenge. As long as IS held the Circle, the officer explained, the highway to Baghdad could not be opened to traffic. Refugees and troops were forced to take a circuitous route through the hills to avoid snipers and rocket launchers. For the third attack, he said, a small team of special forces would cross the highway under cover of a massive barrage of fire, outflank the Circle and try to breach the fortifications from behind. Once a bridgehead was established, the rest of the troops would follow.
The officers travelled through the hills in a long convoy of Humvees, tanks and bulldozers, and installed themselves in a house behind the frontline. With smartphones and tablets arrayed around them they followed the advance of the troops. Like children playing a video game, they moved cursors, tapped in new co-ordinates and nudged and cajoled the men on the ground to advance: ‘Yalla, my hero, cross the street! Have you crossed? Do you have new co-ordinates?’ Aides scavenged the house for a heater, gas and teacups. A general with a high-pitched voice kept asking for news of progress. From the ground came reports of a Humvee hit by an IED, four soldiers injured and troops pinned down by a sniper.
Two hours into the attack, the soldiers had only managed to take a small shop on the ground floor of a two-storey building that sat on the edge of the Circle. IS fighters occupied the first floor.
‘Sir, sir, I’m under siege,’ a voice hissed on the officers’ radio. ‘They’re on top of me.’
From across the road, where the rest of the force had gathered under cover of an Abrams tank, the soldiers hiding in the shop looked small and vulnerable. The tank turned its turret left and right, scanning the highway for car bombs, but could do little to relieve the trapped men.
The soldiers and the fighters lobbed grenades at one another. The IS grenades, launched from an upper window, flew far into the street, while the soldiers’ bounced back off the building and exploded near them. The commanders shouted orders for a second platoon to cross the road to relieve the besieged unit but no one advanced. What was a yellow line on a satellite map for an officer on the ground was a two-lane highway, barricaded on one side by a fuel tanker, a bus and earthworks and exposed on the other, with bullets and RPGs flying. The soldiers squabbled until a weather-beaten sergeant decided to step up.
The tank bowed obligingly and turned its turret as Caesar’s Humvee advanced. In the middle of the road, a Humvee that had been destroyed earlier in the day lay in a ditch. Caesar’s car started slowly crossing the road. Two rockets came in quick succession, exploding just short of range.
‘Yalla, go!’ the driver shouted.
Caesar opened the door, put his head out and then put it back in again.
‘Get closer,’ he told the driver, who moved a few feet forward. Next to him in the car, a soldier with his head wrapped in a green keffiyeh stood up to fire his machine gun. When he dropped it inside it steamed, filling the vehicle with the sharp smell of gunpowder.
‘Caesar! Either you go or we head back,’ the driver pleaded. ‘We’re sitting in the middle of the road.’
‘I want you to fuck the street with grenades,’ Caesar shouted at the standing soldier, who ripped open a box and fed a belt of copper grenades into a gun mounted on the roof. The grenades left with a series of quiet thuds but delivered explosions in the distance. Encouraged by the rattle of bombs, Caesar opened the door again and stepped out, clinging onto the door as if his life depended on it.
‘Just tell me where you want me to park the car. If I go any further they’ll hit us,’ the driver said.
Caesar was silent. In ten years of fighting, he had crossed hundreds of these roads and had seen a dozen of his men die. He knew these sounds: each whoosh and bang was a piece of hot metal intended to kill him, and the decision to leave the protection of an armoured car and cross the street involved something more than courage. It demanded the will to ignore the flying projectiles and to trust his fate to a higher power of randomness.
‘Caesar, we’re going to run out of ammunition and you haven’t crossed the road,’ the driver said. ‘Yalla, Caesar, you’re a hero. Go, my brother.’
‘Fire another round,’ Caesar shouted, before dropping to his knees in the street. The driver rolled forward to cover him and another soldier as they started advancing until they lowered their heads and raced across the road and through the doorway of the shop. The Humvee swung quickly back behind the shelter of the tank.
Inside the shop were a lieutenant, Ali, and a dozen soldiers. Ali was barking orders but no one seemed to pay him any attention. By now the fighters occupying the floor above had either left or been killed, but there was heavy gunfire coming from both left and right. Another column of soldiers trotted across the road and gathered around Ali in the doorway.
‘There are snipers to the left,’ Ali shouted at them, trying to make himself heard over the explosions. And the column of soldiers went left. They hid behind a corner until their commander, another lieutenant who had deserted during an earlier battle but was allowed to come back thanks to a general amnesty, ordered them to advance. He was barely out of the cover provided by the corner when a burst of gunfire hit him. Three soldiers ran out to pull him back but they too came under fire and sheltered in a ditch in the middle of the street, unable to move. The rest of the unit went mad and started shooting hysterically into the street.
Ali smacked his helmet, and turned to his men: ‘I told him not to go left.’ He marched over to one of the soldiers leaning against the wall, grabbed him by the neck and dragged him into the street, handing him a rocket launcher. ‘Fire at that building,’ he shouted. ‘I want smoke and fire.’
Dust and debris filled the air, creating enough confusion for another soldier to grab the fallen lieutenant and drag him to safety. Ali ripped open his flak jacket: three bullets had pierced his abdomen. ‘Alive. He’s alive!’ he shouted.
‘He’s dead,’ a soldier said.
‘No, he’s alive,’ Ali insisted.
The soldier lifted the motionless body, swung it onto his shoulder and ran with him back across the road to base, using the wreckage as cover. The lieutenant’s dangling arms flailed around. A few minutes later the news came through on the radio that he was indeed dead.
The soldiers waited in the shop, some leaning on the barrels of their guns, their faces grim and tired. Over the radio, their commanding officers were asking them to advance. One of them mumbled, ‘I won’t go, I won’t go,’ and then shouted into the radio: ‘Sir, they just killed the lieutenant. They’re all over us, sir. Where are you sending us?’
‘What did you expect?’ the commander replied. ‘That they’d throw flowers? This is war.’
‘Tell the general to come over here and we’ll follow him,’ the soldier said to the others and rested his head back on his gun. Ali decided to move off to the right, and left the building with four men. Up the road there was a huge explosion: a car bomb had gone off.
Later that afternoon the general, accompanied by a large entourage of journalists and aides, arrived in a convoy of armoured vehicles. He was ushered into a house overlooking the Circle. He spoke to camera in his high-pitched voice, assuring his audience that the battle was going well and that the Circle had been liberated. Then one of his bodyguards noticed an IS surveillance drone overhead and he was led quickly away.
On the other side of the street Ali and his men hadn’t moved far beyond the shop. The commanding officers were on the radio to him, speaking to him like tired parents trying to persuade a child to finish his homework before bedtime. ‘Look, Ali, this is your sector. You have to finish it today. Why don’t you do it while you still have daylight? Better than fighting at night.’
‘We have friendly planes in the skies,’ another chimed in. ‘Any target you spot just gives us co-ordinates.’ And so Ali moved on from building to building. Whenever he encountered resistance he radioed the co-ordinates to the commander, who passed them on to ISOF command, who passed them on to the Americans. A few minutes later the response would come through: ‘All units take cover, target will be bombed in one minute.’
Darkness fell but Ali was still moving. He reached the last street in his sector, now moving from house to house using the holes in the walls made by IS. In the final house on the street, a two-storey villa, he came face to face with IS fighters. They opened fire, injuring his civilian guide.
‘Sir! Enemy position,’ he radioed, giving the co-ordinates.
The officer passed the co-ordinates on to ISOF command, who passed them on to the Americans, and the response came through: airstrike in two minutes.
‘Sir!’ Ali radioed again, sounding hoarse and urgent. ‘Sir, the people in the neighbourhood say that there are five families hiding in the basement of that house.’ The officer immediately radioed command again: ‘ISOF, we have a problem. There are civilians in the house.’
‘Operation is a go,’ the whiny general replied. ‘If there’s one IS fighter in the house then it’s a go.’
It wasn’t two minutes, but five or six long minutes later that the explosion arrived. The neighbourhood shook, windows rattled and Ali finished his sector for the day, 250 metres.
Early the next morning, the road, the Circle and the barricades were quiet, and stank of yesterday’s fighting. Façades had been torn off buildings, metal shutters were mangled and electric cables and debris were strewn across the road along with charred shell casings, dried blood and the soldiers’ white polyester food packets of stale rice. Soldiers guarding the intersection sat next to their cars. A pot sat on a fire made from ammunition boxes, tea was simmering on the pot.
A man in a brown tracksuit and long beard broke the stillness. He came running across the highway carrying a young girl, almost falling on his face when he reached the soldiers. A woman in a dusty black abaya and niqab soon followed, dragging along a small boy. Then another family came running. Two men pushed a handcart on which an old man sat with dignity, his hand holding his red keffiyeh on his head. A constant stream of people was emerging: children waving white flags, men carrying women, women carrying pigeons, boys carrying roosters, all kinds of improvised wheelchairs bringing the elderly and handicapped. The men, all with long beards, said thank you to the soldiers and begged for cigarettes.
At first the soldiers ignored the civilians: after weeks of fighting, they were used to these scenes of misery and gratitude. But the people kept coming and the soldiers started distributing water bottles to the families. One boy got a can of 7-Up: the first time he’d tried it, his delighted father said. For two years, there had been no such supplies; the price of sugar had tripled; even fruit and vegetables were unaffordable. There were now hundreds of refugees pouring into Baghdad Circle and onto the highway, camping by the side of the road or clambering into the back of a pick-up truck that was distributing food aid.
Ali sat barefoot outside the school where he and his men had spent the night and watched the civilians walk by. He dipped some stale bread into a pot of yoghurt and had his first meal in 24 hours. ‘You know there were civilians in the house that was bombed last night,’ he said. ‘I tried to stop it, I called the commander to say there were civilians, but they went ahead with the strike.’
He was watching an old man trying to push a wheelbarrow with his wife in it over rubble in the street. Ali shouted to his men to help them, and one of them went over to lend a hand.
‘The neighbours tell me that most of the people got out but three died. Did I kill the civilians?’ he asked. ‘Will god punish me for that?’
An explosion ripped through a house across the street. The old man ran with his wife and hid behind the tank. Ali sat on his ammunition box sipping his tea and looked at the smoke bellowing from the house, chunks of masonry and shrapnel falling around him. ‘Haji, it’s OK! Don’t worry, it’s just a car bomb,’ he laughed at the terrified old man, who straightened himself up, got hold of the wheelbarrow and went on pushing his wife.
For the last three years, Ali and his men and fellow officers have been living like modern-day nomads. Once a neighbourhood is liberated, they move into abandoned civilian houses and set up camp. When the frontline shifts they move with it and change houses, sometimes every night, but often they find themselves stuck in the same house for weeks. Whether in mud huts in villages with no running water, in villas with nice décor and expansive gardens or in brick houses in the narrow alleyways of provincial towns, they build their temporary nests, moving into the beds of a family that has just joined a caravan of refugees, replacing the stinking blankets they have brought from a previous house with fresh ones. They talk about girls, drinking Grey Goose, and their wives and children back home.
The Iraqi Special Operation Forces is the most elite unit of the Iraqi army. Set up soon after the 2003 invasion by the Americans, who supervised their training and provided their equipment, they were paid three times the salary of the regular army. They were kept outside the military chain of command and answered directly to their US handlers. Sunnis, Shia and Kurds served equally in the force, an abnormality among the sectarian and corrupt Iraqi military, which was heavily infiltrated by militias and warlords.
But they were also outside the reach of the law. In the street they were more often known as the Dirty Brigade than the Golden Brigade, their ceremonial name. The sight of their black trucks and armoured vehicles and their masked soldiers in black uniforms instilled fear. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister who inherited them from the Americans, used them as his private army, increasing their numbers and employing them to do his political bidding.
‘Before the fall of Mosul our lives were heaven,’ Ali had told me. ‘We started at midnight. We would gather outside the gates of Baghdad airport and wait for the Americans, who would provide us with a target list and live intelligence from drones. We attacked houses at night. We didn’t even speak to the people we were arresting, we just bundled them up and took them back to the airport. People didn’t know who we were or what we did.’
In 2014, after IS captured Mosul, the regular Iraqi army, a peasants’ militia led by half-literate officers, dissolved into piles of discarded weapons and uniforms and the special forces became the only thing resembling a proper army that stood between the jihadis and Baghdad. The special forces’ long march to the city began later that year.
From Baghdad, Mosul is viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. Its people – educated, relatively wealthy and religiously conservative – had dominated both state bureaucracy and the officers’ corps since Ottoman times. In the sectarian politics of post-invasion Iraq, in which the farmers of Diyala, the tribesmen of Ramadi and the merchants of Mosul were all treated as like-minded Sunnis, squeezed into a corner and challenged to provide a coherent political programme, Mosul was the only place where an indigenous Sunni political identity took root, helped along by an old social structure that had survived the invasion relatively intact. In the civil war that followed, a brutal and highly effective urban insurgency emerged in Mosul. Unlike the tribe-based insurgencies in Ramadi and Falluja, crushed when tribal elders and commanders were bought off and converted into pro-American militias, the insurgency in Mosul was never defeated.
Maliki, who worked to dismantle Sunni power and believed that demonstrations in Sunni cities were a plot financed by Turkey and Qatar to create a Sunni province, fuelled the animosity between Shia Baghdad and Sunni Mosul. He unleashed his police and security forces to suppress any opposition in the city and they behaved like an occupying army, detaining at will, disappearing, torturing and humiliating the people. So in June 2014, when the triumphant jihadis paraded their pick-up trucks through the streets of Mosul, many saw them as liberators, or at least as the lesser evil.
Ahmad, an engineer who once owned a thriving computer business in Mosul, was visiting friends in Erbil that month when his wife called him to say that something was happening. ‘I drove back quickly,’ he said. ‘The roads were blocked and the situation was tense. When I arrived I started hearing from friends and neighbours that the insurgents had been battling Iraqi troops on the outskirts of the city and had taken over a neighbourhood in the west.’ At first he thought nothing of the news: such clashes were common in Mosul. The insurgents were the de facto rulers after dark, levying taxes, imposing protection rackets and controlling the roads in and out of the city. Like all owners of businesses, he had to pay them, on top of the usual bribes he had to pay the army and the police to be left alone.
The next day rumours were spreading, and when the government imposed a curfew he realised the situation was serious. Then came unbelievable reports: the rebels were in full control of the western part of the city, and the governor and all high-ranking officials had fled. The army was in disarray and officers had abandoned their men, who were deserting en masse. ‘We started seeing the poor soldiers running through the streets, some in their underwear. They begged us to tell them how they could leave the city. In my street I showed two soldiers the way out. Some of my neighbours said we should attack them, take their weapons, but I said no, they hadn’t harmed us. Truly, no one in the city harmed the soldiers. Those who fled survived, those who were captured were killed. No one could believe that the army that had oppressed us for so long, that had treated us so badly, had vanished so quickly.’
‘I have to be honest,’ he added. ‘When the Islamic State first entered Mosul everyone was happy. People started clapping for them. They allowed us to remove the concrete blocks the army had installed to close the neighbourhoods. Before, it would take an hour to go from one area to the other, afterwards the roads were open and we felt free. They let the people alone and didn’t mind if people smoked, if people prayed or not. You could go anywhere, do anything you wanted, as long as it didn’t hurt them. I would go to the woods with a friend, sit in a café, smoke a nargileh, and they would turn up. Tall, muscled and mostly foreigners, they wouldn’t dare say a word to you. In the early days we said this was the life.’
Unlike their previous incarnations, the jihadis didn’t just promise the people of Mosul a Sunni resistance to the injustices inflicted on them by the American invasion or the sectarian politics of the Shia government in Baghdad. They went further: they promised a state, a just state based on the principles of Sunni Islam, military strength and effective bureaucracy. In their literature and sermons the jihadi ideologues used different names: the Caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the Islamic State. All these names were eventually superseded and one name remained: the State, al-Dawla. It signified to the people of Mosul the nature of the new rulers, who were going to provide them with a strong, non-corrupt and functioning administration, just like the one they had before the Americans came and messed everything up.
‘They conned the people,’ Ahmad said. ‘They brought prices down and reimposed order. People from the heart of Mosul, from its oldest houses, would join them because they said this was the true Islam. Doctors and university professors joined them, my son’s teacher became a preacher for them, carrying a pistol and grenades on his belt. The whole city joined them.’
This new state took on all the familiar qualities of the ancien regime: it was narrow-minded, pathologically suspicious and phantasmagorical in its call for a return to a glorious past. This wasn’t because it was all a conspiracy on the part of the former regime to enable it to come back to power but because – apart from the novel possibilities afforded by social media for the dissemination of messages and propaganda – the jihadis had no new vision when they came to govern beyond the rotten practices they had inherited from the totalitarian regimes that ruled and still rule the region. Their newspaper read like government papers printed in Baghdad, Sanaa and Damascus. A mixture of paragraphs lifted from the latest sermon of the leader or chief ideologue on page one; delusional descriptions of victories in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan on page two; on pages three and four statistics of so many schools and healthcare centres opened: all very repetitive and boring and hard to credit.
The machines of oppression started cleansing the just state: the Hissba, the state monitoring body in charge of everything from inspecting the length of beards to dress code and moral behaviour; and the Amniyat, the feared security apparatus. The unbelievers – Christians and any other minorities still lurking – were killed or driven out. A meticulous and thorough property survey followed. Houses and shops were either labelled Sunni Muslim or confiscated for the State Property Office, the Dewan. Smoking and male-female coworking were forbidden and un-Islamic curriculums were purged from the universities.
Ahmad, a state-approved Sunni, like his friends and relatives, adapted to the new regime. He grew his beard and his properties were protected from confiscation. While the new state beheaded, tortured and raped, he saw freedom: ‘We had been occupied since 2003 and this was the first time we were truly free.’ But the machines of oppression soon turned on the undesirables among the Sunnis themselves. Anyone who might pose a threat to the state and the wellbeing of the Umma – former police officers who had been pardoned after pledging allegiance, senior Baath Party members and Saddam-era army officers – was imprisoned and many were executed.
And gradually things started changing even for Ahmad. ‘In the beginning we were able to travel freely in and out of Mosul, but now I think about it I would say things started changing two or three months after they arrived, when they set up checkpoints to stop us moving. Then a year later when things flipped – and what a flip! – they made us shake with terror in our own homes. They started terrorising the people in simple ways, dragging them to mosques to pray, shouting into their microphones, and if you ever argued with one of them you would be dragged into their prisons. I asked one of them one day, “Why are you talking to us like this?” and he said: “We want to insult you doctors and engineers, we want to crush your heads with our feet, because your degrees are not Islamic.” They brought terror into our own houses. I feared my neighbour, my brother and my son. I swear I feared my own wife lest, if we argued with each other, she might go out and denounce me to them.’ By ‘the people’ he of course meant the state-approved Sunni, since all the undesirables had long gone.
As the world went insane, the people of Mosul could do nothing but stay home and keep safe. First Ahmad kept his wife indoors, then the girls and later the boys, in case they were rounded up and taken to the front. Finally he himself stopped leaving the house. ‘I would rarely go out, my jobs stopped, my business stopped, the people around me disappeared, but we survived. We survived the same way we survived thirty years of Saddam’s rule. By following the old Iraqi way of bending your head and walking next to the wall. They used to say Saddam’s regime was brutal. Well, Saddam was a picnic compared to them.’
People went to extremes. One man, an artist, dug a hole behind his house where he put his and his son’s drawings and paintings; he poured concrete and put a water tank on top, then confined his five boys to an attic on top of the house. When the children emerged two years later, the youngest two had lost the ability to speak. A doctor whose family had come to the attention of the local Amniyat squad twice – when he was flogged 15 times for defending a neighbour whose beard wasn’t long enough and when his son was detained and tortured for two days for listening to music – was afraid he wouldn’t survive a third encounter. He built a wall around his house, cemented up his door and left only a hole through which a neighbour could pass him food once a week, effectively building his own prison. ‘In the end, I went mad, I just wanted to kill myself,’ he said.
Even with the lockdown Ahmad couldn’t totally protect his children. In each neighbourhood IS installed ‘media points’. ‘They put up TV screens and DVD players with speakers in the streets and played their propaganda films to any children who would gather and watch.’ Two years into the State’s rule, Ahmad tried to smuggle himself out. He found someone who would take him through the desert to a refugee camp. The man asked for $10,000; when he called back a week later to say he agreed the price had gone up to $30,000.
Ahmad was reminiscing in his blue UNHCR-issued linoleum tent in the Khazir refugee camp near Erbil. His tent was neat and clean and stacked high with blankets, but the camp outside was full of ankle-deep mud in which children skidded and where men and women queued for food and heating oil. He and his wife had only agreed to abandon their house in the city after a fourth car bomb hit their street, demolishing part of a neighbour’s house. ‘For all the hardship here, living in a tent, seeing your wife and children queue in the mud outside a toilet with buckets in their hands, I still think life here is a million times better than things we saw in Mosul. Once I’m out of here I’ll go back, sell my house and leave Iraq, to start from the beginning. I’ll work as a guard or a driver, just so the children can have a better future. Because if you lose hope, then why are you alive? You might as well kill yourself.’
The third day after the special forces arrived at Baghdad Circle was sunny, and locals, still wearing their long beards for fear that IS might come back, mingled with the soldiers on the pavement. For an hour or so one could forget that there was a war raging, if one ignored the occasional mortar exploding in the street and the sniper shooting around the corner. Until an officer came running into the street shouting ‘mufakhakha’. The word literally means ‘booby-trapped’ but in the new colloquial Iraqi lexicon it meant ‘car bomb’.
The street’s architecture had changed. A house was missing from the corner and strange things littered the ground – tree trunks covered in diesel, pipes, doors, a car engine – as well as the usual masonry debris. An injured soldier limped forward, his trousers torn and blood streaming from his face. He stumbled, and tripped into the arms of another soldier. ‘I beg you, don’t leave me. I beg you, I kiss your hands and feet, don’t leave me.’
‘No one is leaving you, brother, don’t worry.’
‘My weapons and my vest. I’ve lost them. I have to go back.’
‘I’ll fetch them,’ the soldier said, and propped his companion behind a garden wall.
That day, Ali saw three bodies.
The first was of an IS fighter, killed a few hours earlier. He lay on the edge of a patch of grass, next to an opening in the wall, immaculately preserved, legs bent underneath him and arms perfectly splayed in the posture of a man killed in battle. A smartwatch was strapped to his wrist. He had come through an opening in a wall without knowing that Ali and his men were waiting for him. Ali pointed at the body and walked on. It was part of the landscape of war: proof of the fighting, a measure of their success, but not the body of a man.
The second body had no face. It lay on the back seat of Ali’s car, wrapped in a shiny trauma blanket. It was the body of a young girl, who earlier in the day had run across the frontline to where Ali and his men were stationed. She’d almost got there when a sniper shot her. ‘She was alive when I reached her,’ he said. ‘I took her to the Americans but they couldn’t save her. She had a hole in her chest.’ Ali was in pieces too.
The third body was in Baghdad Circle. A special forces soldier was shouting at people to move. Next to him stood a young guy working two mobiles with a metal chain wrapped around his left hand. ‘And who was in the Hissba?’ the young guy asked. ‘And the Amniyat? Names and numbers.’ He was interrogating an old woman. I asked him what he was doing. ‘That was my house,’ he said, and pointed to a half-destroyed building across the street. ‘IS confiscated it and my family were refugees because I was in the police force. Now I won’t stop until I’ve cleaned up my city.’
‘We just caught one of them,’ the special forces soldier said. ‘He was an old man, holding a child’s hand and walking with a group of families. But when we spoke to them they all said he was the head of the Hissba.’
‘Where is he now?’ I asked.
He pointed at the barricades. ‘Over there, eating falafel with the prophet.’
Behind the barricades, the old man’s body lay, mouth open, a bullet hole in his head. People walked past, giving him a fleeting look before moving on.
Who cares about another dead body in a war that – in its many incarnations: sectarian cleansing, religious purification, national liberation – has haunted this highway for the last 14 years? The place is in ruins. A mangled refinery is now a playground, municipal buildings and schools have been flattened, but the people keep moving, and the killers – insurgents, soldiers, militias, bandits – keep reinventing themselves, implementing new horrors, deploying new tactics in a fight that is far from over.