The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISISFebruary 6, 2017 Issue
When the campaign to expel the Islamic State from Mosul began, on October 17th, the Nineveh Province SWAT team was deployed far from the action, in the village of Kharbardan. For weeks, the élite police unit, made up almost entirely of native sons of Mosul, had been patrolling a bulldozed trench that divided bleak and vacant enemy-held plains from bleak and vacant government-held plains. The men, needing a headquarters, had commandeered an abandoned mud-mortar house whose primary charm was its location: the building next door had been obliterated by an air strike, and the remains of half a dozen Islamic State fighters—charred torsos, limbs, and heads—still littered the rubble.
The SWAT-team members huddled around a lieutenant with a radio, listening to news of the offensive. The Kurdish Army, or peshmerga, was advancing toward Mosul from the north; various divisions of the Iraqi military were preparing a push from the south. More than a hundred thousand soldiers, policemen, and government-sanctioned-militia members were expected to participate in the fight to liberate Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. It had been occupied since June, 2014, and was now home to about six thousand militants from the Islamic State, or ISIS. The SWAT-team members were desperate to join the battle. They called relatives in Mosul, chain-smoked cigarettes, and excoriated the war planners, from Baghdad, who seemed to have forgotten them. Major Mezher Sadoon, the deputy commander, urged patience: the campaign would unfold in stages. At forty-six, he had a flattop and a paintbrush mustache that were equal parts black and gray. He had been shot in the face in Mosul, in 2004, and since then his jaw had been held together by four metal pins. The deformed bone caused his speech to slur—subtly when he spoke at a normal pace and volume (rare), and severely when he was angry or excited (often). Many villages surrounding Mosul had to be cleared before forces could retake the city, Mezher told his men. Holding out his hands, he added, “When you kill a chicken, first you have to boil it. Then you have to pluck it. Only after that do you get to butcher it.”
Few of the policemen seemed reassured by the analogy. They were hungry, and they’d been waiting to butcher this chicken for a long time. The SWAT team was created in 2008 and, in conjunction with U.S. Special Forces, conducted raids in Mosul to arrest high-value terrorism suspects. After the American withdrawal from the country, in 2011, the unit hunted down insurgents on its own.
In early 2014, ISIS attacked the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Falluja. Then, riding out of Syria in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, the militants stormed Mosul. They had aspired merely to secure a couple of the city’s western neighborhoods, but they quickly reached the Tigris River, which snakes south through the middle of Mosul. Along the way, they overran several military bases, seizing the heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and ammunition depots inside them. The SWAT team, which at the time was based at a compound near the Mosul airport, consisted of roughly eighty men, only half of whom were on duty. As ISIS surged through the city, the commander of the SWAT team, Lieutenant Colonel Rayyan Abdelrazzak, consolidated his troops in the Mosul Hotel, a ten-story terraced building on the western bank of the Tigris. The SWAT team held the position for four days, while the thirty thousand Army soldiers stationed in Mosul—nearly all of whom came from elsewhere in Iraq—ditched their weapons and fled. On the fifth day, a water tanker loaded with explosives detonated outside the hotel, killing three SWAT-team members and wounding twenty-five. Rayyan and the survivors retreated to the airport compound.
A detention facility next to the compound contained approximately nine hundred convicted terrorists, many of whom had been apprehended by the SWAT team. With the fall of Mosul imminent, Rayyan’s men loaded two hundred and fifty-six of the inmates into vans and spirited them out of the city. The captives they had to leave behind were freed by ISIS the next day. A week later, so were the two hundred and fifty-six, when the town to which Rayyan had transferred them also fell to ISIS.
In the areas it controls, ISIS typically offers Iraqi security forces a kind of amnesty by means of an Islamic procedure called towba, in which one repents and pledges allegiance to the Caliphate. But the SWAT team was not eligible for towba. “We had killed too many of them,” Rayyan told me. Some members of the force who had not been at the Mosul Hotel escaped to Kurdistan, but, among those who failed to make it out of the city, twenty-six were rounded up and executed.
Eventually, the chief of police for Nineveh Province, whose capital is Mosul, reconstituted his forces at a spartan base north of the city. Rayyan brought the remnants of the SWAT team there, and began enlisting new volunteers. Aside from martial aptitude, there were two principal requirements for recruits: they had to have been wounded by ISIS or its Islamist precursors—either physically, by bullets and blasts, or psychically, by the death of a loved one—and they had to crave revenge. “I had the idea that a unit like that would work in a real way,” Rayyan told me. If the implication was that other units’ commitment to the destruction of ISIS was less than sincere, Rayyan’s understanding of the distinction was personal. In 2005, his older brother Safwan had been gunned down by terrorists, and two of his fiancée’s brothers had been murdered. His father’s house had been blown up. He’d been shot in the leg and the chest and the hip. At his engagement party, gunmen had tried to shoot him a fourth time, and wounded his sister instead. More recently, ISIS suicide bombers had killed his brother Neshwan, a police officer, and abducted his brother Salwan, who had remained in Mosul. Rayyan didn’t know if Salwan was alive or dead.
For two years after Mosul fell, the front lines around the city remained relatively static, as the Iraqi military regrouped and clawed back ISIS-held territory closer to Baghdad. This past summer, Iraqi forces began reclaiming the mostly rural lands to the east and south of Mosul, laying the groundwork for an invasion. The SWAT team helped clear five villages. Then, to the unit’s frustration, it was sent out to Kharbardan, in a dust-bowl district of minimal strategic consequence. A few days after the campaign to liberate Mosul began, one officer, Lieutenant Thamer Najem, deserted his post when he learned that the Army was attempting to clear ISIS from the village where his mother and cousins lived. Thamer returned two days later with a story that confirmed each man’s worst anxiety. Four of his cousins had killed an ISIS fighter when they saw Iraqi infantry and tanks approaching. But the Army had stopped short of entering the village, and Thamer’s relatives were slaughtered.
In Kharbardan, policeman after policeman explained to my interpreter and me why he had joined the SWAT team and why he wanted revenge. Hadi Nabil, a low-key corporal, said that his wife, Abeer, died in 2013, when Al Qaeda assassins came looking for him at his home. Their daughter, Khalida, was ten days old. The gunmen shot Abeer dead and wounded Hadi in the shoulder. After the funeral, Hadi, in keeping with Iraqi custom, married Abeer’s sister, Iman, who agreed to raise Khalida.
When ISIS invaded Mosul, Hadi, then a regular policeman, holed up with the SWAT members in the hotel, where he was wounded in the water-tanker blast. He fled the city with Rayyan’s men, and hadn’t seen his wife or his daughter since. In 2015, an ISIS court forced Iman to divorce Hadi. Militants subsequently tracked down Hadi’s brother, who belonged to a resistance cell, and abducted him.
One day in Kharbardan, a young man with a black scarf wrapped around his head approached me bashfully and proposed that we talk someplace where no one else could hear. His name was Bashar Hamood; until now, he’d deliberately seemed to avoid me. We climbed onto the roof. A guard was posted there, and when he saw us he asked Bashar, “Did you show him the video?”
Bashar told me that his older brother, Salem, had been an intelligence officer in Mosul and had fled to Kurdistan when the city fell. A few months later, a Kurdish intelligence agency publicly accused Salem of being an ISIS sympathizer, and deported him from Kurdish territory. Bashar was shocked, and on March 17, 2015, he contacted Salem on Facebook, insisting that he explain himself. Salem revealed that his expulsion from Kurdistan was a ploy—he had returned to Mosul to conduct a clandestine operation. Bashar and Salem had another brother, Kahtan, who’d been killed by Islamists in 2006. Bashar pleaded with Salem to return to Kurdistan, but Salem refused. “I’m here to get revenge for Kahtan,” he wrote. Bashar sent another message, and could see that Salem’s account was still online. But Salem didn’t respond. “It seems that this whole conversation was being read by ISIS,” Bashar said. For five days, Bashar heard no news about Salem. Then a friend in Mosul sent word: Salem had been taken to an ISIS court and condemned to die.
On the roof, Bashar got out his phone and, averting his eyes, showed me a video. He had put the phone on mute. “I’m sorry, I can’t listen,” he said. Later, my interpreter and I watched the video again, with sound. It opens with red and white Arabic script on a black background, which says, “Another slaughter by the crusader coalition against a Muslim family in Ghabat”—a neighborhood in northern Mosul. “God will avenge us.” The video shows men clearing debris and extracting mangled corpses, some of children. Eventually, Salem appears onscreen, in an orange jumpsuit, beside the black flag of ISIS. Like Bashar, he has a long face and heavy-lidded eyes. He confesses to providing Iraqi intelligence officers with G.P.S. coördinates for ISIS targets, including the location of the strike in Ghabat. He speaks with unsettling composure, but his mouth is dry, and at several points he pauses and makes an effort to swallow. “I have advice for anyone who wants to do this kind of work,” he says. “Give up.”
The video cuts to more red text—the word “vengeance”—and then shows Salem, outdoors, kneeling amid slabs of concrete before a militant holding a sword. The video transitions to slow motion as the militant beheads Salem.
I asked Bashar why he kept the video on his phone. “The Prophet tells us it’s forbidden to kill prisoners of war,” Bashar replied. “If I catch someone from ISIS, I know I’ll remember the Prophet’s words and fear God’s punishment. But if I watch this video my heart will become like boiling water, and, even if it’s forbidden by my religion, I’ll have the strength to kill him.”
Later that day, I was standing outside the house with Basam Attallah, a captain with a round, open face and a neck so short that his signature desert scarf usually obscured it. Basam said he had not informed his family in Mosul that he was on the SWAT team. “The day before yesterday, one of my cousins called me,” Basam said. “I told him I’m working in Kurdistan, in a store. It’s better that way. If someone accidentally says something, if one of the children hears it and repeats it, they could be in danger.”
As we spoke, a Humvee raced up the dirt road that led from the trench and skidded to a stop in front of us. A young policeman, sobbing violently, tumbled out and collapsed into Basam’s arms. “Sir!” he cried. “They have my wife and kids!”
Basam brought the man, Ahmed Saad, to a bench, where Major Mezher and others were smoking a hookah. Ahmed told Mezher that ISIS fighters had shown up at his in-laws’ house, in Mosul, and taken away his wife, his son, and his daughter. Ahmed’s mother had called his brother, Saef, who was also on the SWAT team, and Saef had relayed the news to Ahmed.
On a typical day, even a minor annoyance could provoke Mezher to throw a nearby object—a water bottle, a chair, a glowing hookah coal—at a subordinate, and more than once I’d seen him shoot his Kalashnikov a few inches to the right or left of some terrified offender. These outbursts were reliably preceded by a deep furrowing of the brow, such as he was affecting now.
He glowered at Saef, who was loitering at a cautious remove. “Why did you tell him?” Mezher shouted at him. “Come here!” Saef stepped closer, uncertainly, and Mezher spat on him. Turning to Ahmed, Mezher said, “If they call you and tell you that they took your wife, tell them you don’t care. Tell them you divorced her three years ago.”
|Captain Basam Attallah shoots at a cache of ISIS explosives, a hundred feet away, discovered while clearing a village near Mosul. “If you go toward death, death retreats,” he said.|
Ahmed had stopped crying. The men had offered him the hookah, and he stared at the ground, smoking.
“Do you know who it was?” Mezher asked.
“Probably the barber,” Ahmed said. “He called me not long ago and said, ‘If you think you’re a state, why don’t you come to Mosul?’ ”
For a while, no one spoke. Then Hadi said, “They took my wife to the court and divorced her from me.”
“We’re not doing any more operations down here,” Mezher declared. “From now on, all our missions will be toward our families.”
Ahmed looked up. “When are they going to give us another mission?”
Mezher had no answer. But the next day the SWAT team was ordered to head west, to the Tigris River, and begin following it north toward Mosul.
At the Tigris, the SWAT team was to meet up with the Ninety-first Brigade of the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division. Together, they would clear half a dozen villages on the river’s eastern bank while the Federal Police—a national paramilitary force—advanced, in tandem, on the river’s opposite bank. The broader goal was to approach Mosul from three sides: while the peshmerga, moving from Kurdistan, established a front north of the city, the Iraqi military would attempt to penetrate from the east and the south. That would leave western Mosul open to the desert that led to Syria. There were two reasons for this strategy. First, the historic neighborhoods west of the Tigris presented a greater tactical challenge than the east side. Describing western Mosul, Colonel Brett Sylvia, the commander of the American-led Task Force Strike, which advises and assists the Iraqi military, told me, “It is much more dense, in terms of the urban terrain. There is a larger civilian population on that side, and it has been home to some of the more strongly held ISIS areas.” Second, surrounding Mosul entirely would invite the militants to fight to the death; better to leave open a corridor to Syria, lure them into the desert, and kill them there.
Thirty-five members of the SWAT team left at sunrise, in seven armored Humvees. There wasn’t room for the entire unit. Many members of the team were related, and, because of the risk of improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, Mezher prohibited any two family members from riding in the same Humvee.
I crammed into Mezher’s vehicle, sharing a seat with a corporal in a black balaclava. We were wedged in amid ammo boxes, ammo belts, and the feet of another policeman, who stood in the turret behind a Dushka, a Russian heavy machine gun. The SWAT team rendezvoused with the 16th Division on a dirt road winding through neglected wheat fields. Behind us, the sky was obscured by an eerie miasma: black smoke gushing from oil fields that ISIS had set alight when it quit the area, in August. The convoy proceeded haltingly, often pausing for engineers to detonate mines or for soldiers to conduct reconnaissance in lonely farming settlements where the exteriors of houses were draped with white bedsheets and pillowcases—flags of peace. Outside a village called Salahiya, the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 16th Division suddenly came to a halt. The SWAT team continued into town on its own.
One Humvee was ahead of ours, and it paused upon reaching the first narrow street. Mezher erupted.
“Go, you cowards!” he screamed into his radio, slamming the windshield with his palm. He turned to his driver. “Go!”
We accelerated into the lead, hurtling down alleys and whipping around corners. I was impressed that the driver could steer at all. The bulletproof windshield, cracked by past rounds, looked like battered ice, and a large photograph of a recently killed SWAT-team member obstructed much of the view.
The gunner fired into random buildings, and something exploded behind us, but the snipers and ambushes that we braced for never came. Salahiya was deserted.
Mezher told the driver to park on a low rise in the center of town, where the rest of the unit joined us. Colonel Rayyan stepped out of a vehicle and greeted Mezher. While Mezher directed some men to kindle hookah coals, Rayyan directed others to scale a nearby water tower and raise an Iraqi flag.
Normally, Mezher and Rayyan alternated leadership every ten days; while one was in charge, the other rested in Kurdistan. On the rare occasions that the two commanders were together, the stark contrast between their personalities was evident. Mezher was flamboyant and erratic, Rayyan subdued and self-possessed. Whereas Mezher disdained the trappings of rank—he wore his major’s patch only for meetings with superiors—Rayyan kept his uniform pressed and his pockets stocked with gold-colored ballpoint pens. Unlike Mezher, he maintained a personal protection detail, consisting of the unit’s two tallest members. (They flanked him whenever he was stationary, underscoring his under-average height.) Rayyan’s quiet poise often made him seem aloof, and his authority was defined by a ceremonial distance between himself and his subordinates. Mezher—sometimes frighteningly, sometimes exhilaratingly—was contemptuous of decorum. He preferred the men’s companionship to their deference.
Both leaders were revered. But it was Mezher whom the younger members of the unit emulated. They were loud like him, profane like him, and, like him, they seemed to find solace from their private traumas in a dark and graphic form of humor. Once, Mezher told me, “Rayyan is the only one of us who isn’t crazy.” This hadn’t sounded like praise.
If Mezher had a protégé, it was Captain Basam Attallah, who, more than any other officer, was venerated by the men for his daring as a policeman in Mosul before 2014. For his efforts, Al Qaeda had tried to kill him; it failed, and killed his brother instead. Shortly after we arrived in Salahiya, Basam set off on foot to pursue a tip about an ISIS-owned pickup truck that was supposedly loaded with I.E.D.s. He found the truck in a carport attached to a concrete house, its bed covered with canvas. As Basam cavalierly peeked underneath, I was reminded of some dubious wisdom he had once dispensed: “If you go toward death, death retreats.” He returned from the truck smiling. The tip was accurate.
I followed Basam and half a dozen others as they climbed onto the roof of a two-story building a hundred feet away. With a clear vantage on the truck, Basam took aim with a machine gun. The second burst found its mark, and the explosion it produced was so immense that it not only levelled the concrete house and several surrounding structures; it also set off an I.E.D. buried up the road. The blast wave knocked me off my feet. Flying debris darkened the sky, and, after a seemingly long interlude, whole cinder blocks began crashing onto the roof.
Several of us were bruised and bleeding. Blood flowed brightly down one fighter’s face and dripped off his chin. Basam, an open gash on his cheek, was ecstatic.
“Very good!” he cried, in English.
There were many civilians in the next village we entered, Tal al-Shaeer, but there was no need to liberate them: all the militants, they told the SWAT team, had fled the previous day, crossing the Tigris in skiffs. Mezher grumbled that someone must have warned them; I surmised that he meant someone from the Army or the Federal Police. Most of the SWAT-team members viewed Iraq’s national armed forces with lingering unease, if not distrust. After the U.S. disbanded Saddam Hussein’s military, in 2003, it spent twenty-six billion dollars training and equipping a new one. By the time ISIS showed up in Mosul, the city was being protected by a zealously sectarian Shiite force overseen by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s zealously sectarian Shiite Prime Minister. Although the SWAT team included Shia, Turkmen, Kurdish, Christian, and Yazidi members, it reflected the demographics of Mosul and was therefore, like ISIS, predominantly Sunni Arab. (Mezher and Rayyan are both observant Sunnis.) “The relationship between the Army and the Nineveh Police was terrible,” Captain Basam told me. “We were from Mosul. They were all from Baghdad and the south. They didn’t allow us to go to any of the areas they controlled.” Many former residents of Mosul told me that one reason Shiite forces abandoned the city so readily in 2014 was that they feared reprisal from emboldened Sunni civilians for their abuses as much as they feared ISIS.
After ISIS overtook Mosul, the U.S. began sending more trainers, weapons, and matériel to the Iraqi government—more than a billion dollars’ worth, and counting—in order to rebuild its military. Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, is a Shiite who belongs to Maliki’s political party, but he has reinstated many professional commanders whom Maliki had replaced with Shiite hard-liners, and has tolerated recruitment efforts that aim at diversifying the Army.
In 2015, the reinvigorated Iraqi military liberated Ramadi and Falluja. Credit for these victories, however, went less to Iraq’s Army than to a special-operations force popularly known as the Golden Division, whose chain of command is independent of the Ministry of Defense. Trained by Green Berets and armed with American weapons, the Golden Division has spearheaded every major engagement with ISIS in Iraq outside of Kurdistan. It was widely expected to take the lead in the Mosul assault as well. While the SWAT team was in Tal al-Shaeer, thousands of Golden Division soldiers were massed north and east of Mosul.
The roles of other groups likely to participate in the offensive were murkier. Over the past two years, Sunni tribesmen, Christian fighters, Kurdish revolutionaries, Yazidi genocide survivors, and displaced civilians have all acquired weapons and funding, from various foreign and domestic sponsors. Although most of these outfits are modest in size, the Popular Mobilization Units, a confederation of Shiite militias, total more than a hundred thousand men. Partly backed by Iran, the P.M.U. had proved to be both effective and unscrupulous, its battlefield victories inevitably attended by allegations of war crimes perpetrated against Sunni civilians. Virtually all the Sunni leaders from Mosul opposed P.M.U. involvement in the offensive. In July, however, the Iraqi government gave its approval for the P.M.U. to join the battle, and the U.S. supported the decision.
The fragile coalition depended on the hope that internal disputes would remain minimal as long as the various factions were united against ISIS. But would that unity endure once Mosul was liberated? No political arrangement had been made for the governance of the city after the defeat of ISIS, and some Iraqis seemed keen to exploit any future power vacuum. In 2014, Atheel al-Nujaifi, a former governor of Nineveh Province, established a base north of Mosul and began organizing a militia of former city residents. Nujaifi is an ally of Turkish leaders, who have never forgotten that Mosul once belonged to the Ottoman Empire, and when I visited the base in 2015 I found six Turkish soldiers training Nujaifi’s men. Today, Turkey has more than six hundred soldiers in northern Iraq. The Iraqi government has demanded that Turkey recall its troops, to no avail. A week before the Mosul campaign began, Prime Minister Abadi insisted that Turkey would not meddle in the offensive; the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, responded publicly that it would indeed. “You are not my equal,” Erdoğan told Abadi.
The leaders of both the P.M.U. and the Kurdish peshmerga pledged that their forces would not enter Mosul proper, and the regular Army and the Golden Division were slated to deploy elsewhere once the city was secure. The Nineveh Police and the SWAT team would remain in Mosul after its liberation, to manage whatever troubles might follow. When I asked Colonel Rayyan if he worried about having to fight an insurgency all over again, he said, “There have always been bad people in Mosul. In the nineties, we had Mafia types kidnapping and killing people, stealing from people. After the U.S. Army came, they called themselves mujahideen, jihadists. Now they call themselves ISIS. But they are just criminals. They have always just been criminals.”
|Lieutenant Colonel Rayyan Abdelrazzak was eerily composed in battle. “Rayyan is the only one of us who isn’t crazy,” Mezher said.|
Rayyan’s reply, though it avoided answering my question, was revealing of how the SWAT-team members viewed ISIS—or, at least, the ISIS militants in Mosul. For them, the Mosul offensive was merely the continuation of a war that they had been fighting most of their lives. When the men referred to older terrorist groups that had wounded them or killed their relatives—Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Jaesh al-Mujahideen, or obscurer offshoots—they always called them Daesh, the Arabic term for ISIS, even though ISIS, in most cases, did not yet exist.
As we scavenged for blankets in abandoned homes on the outskirts of Tal al-Shaeer, the village crackled with celebratory gunfire. In the morning, I found Mezher and Basam smoking a hookah near a campfire. Rayyan, his pistol holstered on his thigh, was performing calisthenics. Several shepherds passed by, leisurely guiding their flocks toward a grassy hill.
An hour or so later, an explosion came from that direction; a brown plume mushroomed above the hill. The shepherds had triggered a mine, we learned, and two of them were dead.
That afternoon, Rayyan and I visited a local elder. When we left the elder’s house, all the villagers outside had scarves tied around their faces. The air stung our throats and our eyes—not severely, but like a whiff of tear gas carried on a breeze. Across the river, ISIS militants, retreating ahead of the Federal Police, had set a sulfur factory on fire.
II. Entering the City
Over the next few days, Iraqi forces tightened their noose around Mosul. In the north, the peshmerga made inroads in Bashiqa, a large town with a Kurdish majority; in the south, the Federal Police continued moving up the Tigris; in the east, the Golden Division reached a Mosul suburb called Gogjali; and, in the west, the P.M.U. occupied the desert between Mosul and Syria, closing the corridor that had provided ISIS with an alternative to fighting to the death.
On October 24th, the Iraqi Army secured Hamdaniya, a Christian town some twenty miles away from Mosul. The Nineveh Police moved its headquarters there, and the SWAT team took over a gutted elementary school. Down the street stood an ancient church. ISIS had knocked the cross off its dome; someone had recently replaced it with two nailed-together boards held upright by stones. The city was decimated. The brigade that had liberated Hamdaniya belonged to the 9th Division, a mechanized unit equipped with assault tanks and armored personnel carriers. When the 9th Division cleared territory, it left a devastating footprint. American F-16s had added to the damage.
By November, the 9th Division had captured a village less than a mile from Intisar, the first urban neighborhood on Mosul’s southeastern edge. The SWAT team was directed to an adjacent neighborhood called Shaymaa. While the 9th Division attempted to enter Intisar, the SWAT team would gain a foothold in Shaymaa and block any ISIS fighters coming from that direction.
I was in Kurdistan when the team received the order, and by the time I returned to the SWAT headquarters all the Humvees had gone to the front. I caught a ride in a truck bringing food and water to an aid station that had been set up outside Shaymaa by the 9th Division. Next door, three SWAT-team members were prepping ammunition in a half-constructed house. Explosions and gunfire sounded up ahead, occasionally shaking the air and the earth. After an hour or so, two battered Humvees arrived with the first injured man, a young sergeant.
The man labored to breathe. He’d been in the turret of a Humvee, firing the Dushka, when the gun overheated or was hit by an enemy round; the barrel had split open, and a shard had punctured his chest. A 9th Division medic applied a seal over the wound.
Rayyan was off duty. Mezher stood over the sergeant, muttering reassurances. He looked troubled. This was what he and his men had been waiting for—but whatever was happening up the road seemed to have rattled his confidence. While SWAT-team members replaced the broken Dushka barrel on the sergeant’s Humvee, Mezher wandered off alone.
“Did you see how many shells were falling over there?” one of the SWAT-team members said.
A Humvee belonging to an infantry unit that was working with the 9th Division parked outside the aid station and unloaded a soldier whose left arm was open to the bone. His face was raw with burns; he was unconscious, and snorting loudly through his nose.
A soldier asked, “Why don’t we just destroy all the houses and kill everyone in them?”
“There are a lot of civilians,” another said.
“They’re all with ISIS.”
“Come on, that’s not true. They have no choice.”
More soldiers arrived, holding a scarf to the back of someone’s bleeding head. Another Humvee delivered a man whose face was wrapped in oozing gauze.
After the sergeant was evacuated, Mezher told his men, “We need to go back.” I asked to accompany them. “Tomorrow,” Mezher said. Then they drove off toward the smoke and noise.
I stayed at the half-constructed house for the next three days. Two more wounded SWAT-team members were brought to the aid station, along with many Iraqi Army soldiers. The head medic, Naseem Qasim, a thirty-three-year-old major with a master’s degree in microbiology, had served with the 9th Division throughout the liberations of Ramadi and Falluja, where he’d been shot in the hip. He spoke excellent English, and worked with calm efficiency, often while smoking a cigarette, the ash falling on his patients. His job was mainly to provide sufficient emergency care for casualties to survive the two-hour drive to a public hospital in Erbil. Naseem had no anesthetics. “They don’t need them,” he told me. “They’re strong.” He wasn’t referring only to the fighters. At one point, an ambulance arrived with an elderly woman whose home had been shelled. Her son had been killed; her leg and several bones in her hand were fractured. As Naseem struggled to set a broken finger, she did not make a sound.
The battle in Shaymaa was proving difficult. An armored personnel carrier, or A.P.C., brought six badly wounded soldiers to the aid station at once. Their commander told me that they had come under intense fire from the first houses they came to in Shaymaa. When the commander told the crew of another A.P.C. in his unit to attack the houses, they refused the order, saying that it was too dangerous. Over the radio, Captain Basam volunteered to take members of the SWAT team there. The SWAT team’s Humvees were immediately surrounded. Two A.P.C.s attempted a rescue, but, after one was hit by a mortar, or maybe a recoilless rifle, they turned back.
I asked the commander what had happened to the SWAT-team members. “I don’t know,” he said.
Three days later, a Humvee appeared at the aid station carrying Basam, who was ill from exhaustion but otherwise unscathed; Thamer, the lieutenant who’d gone AWOL when his mother’s village was liberated, was with him. After Thamer placed Basam in the care of Naseem, he headed back to Shaymaa, and I went along.
The SWAT team had taken three buildings on the outskirts of the neighborhood; Major Mezher and most of the team were in a large, decoratively tiled house. After Thamer parked outside, we ran from the Humvee through a hole sledgehammered into one of the walls. Inside, men rushed up and down a spiral staircase, bearing ammo, weapons, and orders. Nearly all of them were limping or coughing or wearing bloody dressings. Still, they were in remarkably high spirits. Loay Fathy, the policeman whose head had been wounded on the roof in Salahiya, wore a new bandage on a new head wound. He gave me a thumbs-up.
I was surprised to see a small-framed warrant officer named Ali Names hobbling around the house. The survivor of multiple bombings, he had more than forty pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. He was one of several SWAT-team members whom Colonel Rayyan usually kept away from the front lines, because they suffered from particularly traumatic injuries. Ali’s wife, son, and daughter were still in Mosul, and he was haunted by a premonition that he would never see them again. “I’m worried that ISIS will kill all the relatives of the SWAT before they’re defeated,” he had told me. “So far, they’ve let the women and children live. But I imagine it every day. I dream about it at night. They want to burn our hearts.”
Mezher had converted the master bedroom into a makeshift operations center. I found him sitting on the edge of the bed, casually flipping a hand grenade around his finger.
“Welcome to Mosul,” he said.
After catching me up—they’d lost two of their seven Humvees, one to a suicide car and one to a mortar—Mezher held out the I.D. card of a militant they had killed. Not just killed: they had poured gasoline over his corpse and set it on fire. The remains lay on the ground outside, beside a Humvee belonging to the Iraqi Army, which had been destroyed by ISIS artillery. “Five soldiers were inside,” Mezher said of the Humvee. “All of them died.”
We heard shouting, and Mezher rushed outside, through the hole in the wall. Several SWAT-team members were studying the sky. There was a high-pitched buzz, like a distant chainsaw.
“There!” one of them yelled.
Moving slowly below the clouds was a white four-rotor surveillance drone, deployed by ISIS to reconnoitre the SWAT team’s position. Everyone tried to shoot it down, but it was out of range. After hovering briefly, it flew off.
Hadi Nabil, the corporal whose wife had been forced by ISIS to divorce him, was among those shooting at the drone. He told me that he had been driving the Humvee that was blown up by the suicide car. His hair, face, and uniform were still caked with dust from the blast. He spoke feverishly, and I attributed his excitement to an understandable survivor’s high. It wasn’t that. The previous day, Iman and Khalida, his wife and daughter, had made their way to Shaymaa, with Iman’s brother. Hadi told me they intended to cross the SWAT team’s front line that day or the next.
“They’re less than a kilometre from here,” Hadi said.
He offered to take me to the next SWAT-team position, a few hundred feet away, where we’d have a better view of Shaymaa. We ran behind a berm, which Army bulldozers had created the previous day, to a house pocked with bullet holes. In the living room, amid scattered debris and hundreds of spent casings, policemen were toasting stale bread over a propane flame. One of them was Mohammad Ahmed, a perpetually grinning twenty-seven-year-old with the build of a featherweight boxer. Everybody in the SWAT team called him Dumbuk—an Iraqi word for a traditional drum—though no one would tell me why. His five-year-old son’s name was tattooed on his biceps. On one of his forearms, in Arabic, was the declaration “If I didn’t fear God, I would worship my mother.” Dumbuk’s son and mother, along with his wife, father, and three-year-old daughter, were trapped inside Mosul. When the offensive began, Dumbuk had arranged for his family to move to Hamam al-Alil, an ISIS-held town south of the city, which Dumbuk hoped would be quickly liberated. But, as the Federal Police, following the Tigris, neared Hamam al-Alil, the militants there had retreated to Mosul, forcing hundreds of civilians, including Dumbuk’s family, to accompany their convoy as human shields.
Dumbuk told me that his uncle and some cousins lived in Shaymaa. You could see their street, he said, from the sniper position on the second floor.
Upstairs, we found First Lieutenant Omar Ibrahim hunched below a shattered window. An oblong hole gaped in the cinder-block wall behind him, where a rocket-propelled grenade had exploded the day before. Omar was one of the only men in the unit whom I’d never heard raise his voice—he rarely spoke at all—and he recounted the grenade incident with sangfroid.
“They’re very close,” he said.
Peeking over the windowsill, we could glimpse dense blocks of identical-looking houses with water tanks on their roofs, the domes and minarets of mosques scattered here and there. One of the houses belonged to Dumbuk’s uncle and cousins; another held Hadi’s wife and daughter. ISIS and the men’s loved ones were in the same place, but ISIS was too close and their loved ones were too far away.
|The Nineveh Province SWAT team occupied a large, decoratively tiled house in the Shaymaa neighborhood. A policeman warily ascends to the roof, which is exposed to gunfire from ISIS snipers. November 6, 2016.|
That night, gunmen attacking the SWAT team’s line approached so near that we could hear them crying “Allahu Akbar!” Bullets whistled overhead; red tracers arced and disappeared. In the morning, rounds smacked against the walls of the house occupied by Mezher, and a mortar rattled the windows. To the east, two enormous blasts preceded two enormous plumes. When I saw Hadi, he was still in a good mood. “Last night, I talked to my wife on the phone,” he told me. “I’ll get them out today.”
The incoming fire showed no sign of abating—and weren’t the fighters on our side shooting everything that moved on theirs? How did Hadi intend to retrieve Iman and Khalida safely?
“We have a sign,” he said. “They’re not going to come with a white flag. They’ll have a black flag. That’s how we’ll know it’s them.”
The plan sounded risky, but Hadi was confident. “They’ll cross over today,” he repeated.
It wasn’t to be. Two hours later, Mezher yelled at everyone to start packing.
“New mission,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
ISIS had shown unexpected tenacity in its defense of Intisar, the neighborhood next to Shaymaa, and the 9th Division had asked the SWAT team to help it capture several blocks. Mezher and his lieutenants were unenthusiastic about the assignment. Their experience in Shaymaa had forced them to acknowledge that they were organized and equipped for arresting individual terrorists, not for entrenched urban combat. The unit was small and lacked logistical support: there was no one to bring them food, water, ammunition, or extra weapons, let alone reinforcements. They didn’t have their own medics, intelligence officers, mechanics, engineers, or bomb technicians. They had no mortar or artillery teams (or any contact with units that did have them). No one on the SWAT team was authorized to request air support. None of the American advisers embedded with the various military divisions seemed to know that the unit existed. It had no ambulance, which meant that it had to sacrifice a fighting vehicle to transport casualties. The SWAT team’s Humvees were useless against suicide attacks. The men had no helmets, and most of them wore flak jackets that lacked bulletproof plates.
In a dusty area just outside Intisar, Mezher gathered the team. “What can I do?” he said, waving toward the machine-gun fire, mortar blasts, and air strikes on the city’s edge. “They want to fuck your sisters.” The men chuckled. “Take all the extra stuff you brought here out of the Humvees,” Mezher told them. “We’re leaving everything here. The water, the food, the generators. I want to try to go into this place with only ammunition. Any of you who brought your panties and bras, get rid of them. Why are we here, to fight or to do something else?” No one was laughing anymore. “Let’s go,” he said.
Once again, there weren’t enough seats in the Humvees, and several men had to stay behind. I followed them down a nearby alley, where Major Naseem had set up a new aid station in a small one-story house with an enclosed patio. Stretchers were lined up in the front room. The fake-gold pages of a Koran, draped with a garland of plastic roses, were mounted on the wall, above bags of saline hanging from protruding screws.
We had not been there very long when a SWAT Humvee arrived with two injured men. As soon as the unit entered Intisar, the men told me, it had been shelled. Ali, the man with more than forty pieces of shrapnel in his body, had also been hit. Apparently, his legs had been so badly mangled that an ambulance was bypassing the aid station and taking him directly to Erbil.
We spent the night on the floor of an abandoned house, and in the morning a Humvee came to fetch two of the policemen there, leaving only one behind with me. Not long afterward, we heard an explosion, and went to the roof. A brown cloud rose over Intisar. Bullets whizzed by us and we climbed back down. I went to the aid station, and found Major Naseem wrapping the left arm of Corporal Bilal, a forty-year-old member of the SWAT team. The explosion that we’d seen was a suicide truck detonating. Bilal had been kneeling behind a wall, holding his rifle above his head and shooting at the truck, when it blew up. His hand was nearly severed. Naseem took him outside to an ambulance and called out, “Is there someone to go with him?”
A SWAT Humvee drove up and parked behind the ambulance. Its rear hatch had been blown off, and its roof and hood were covered with debris. Several medics and two SWAT-team members hauled out a blanket with someone inside it. Hadi, the corporal attempting to retrieve his wife and daughter, emerged from the driver’s seat of the Humvee and stumbled after the others into the aid station. He was covered in dirt. His eyes were red and leaking profusely.
“My eyes!” he cried. “Can you check my eyes?”
Naseem and the medics laid the blanket down on a stretcher. Inside was Jawad Mustafa, one of the SWAT team’s ethnic Turkmen, a popular sergeant with a penchant for tomfoolery. (Once, in Hamdaniya, he’d entertained us by striking coquettish poses in a purple wig that he’d found somewhere.) Jawad wasn’t breathing. The medics strapped a bag valve on his face and started squeezing air into his lungs.
“Fuck them!” a SWAT-team member yelled. “Shit on their religion!”
Naseem and other medics began performing CPR on Jawad. Hadi paced around the room, shouting at no one in particular. “The Army is betraying us! They’re selling us out! The suicide vehicle passed their tanks and came straight to us. They have tanks! They have heavy weapons! Why didn’t they shoot at it?”
When someone tried to talk to Hadi, he gestured toward his ears. “I can’t hear anything.”
The medics began removing Jawad’s clothes with trauma shears. “He doesn’t have any wounds,” one of them said. Jawad’s left leg slipped off the stretcher and hung limply until someone put it back.
Hadi stormed onto the patio. “What are we supposed to do?” he asked a group of soldiers. “We can’t even stick our heads out with their snipers. They have every weapon—mortars, everything. What do we have? Rifles and machine guns.”
Inside, another SWAT-team member was talking to a medic. “One more hour and we’ll all get killed here,” he said. “Tell us what we should do.”
|A young man named Ahmed, suspected of being an ISIS militant, is beaten and interrogated after being picked up by members of the SWAT team.|
The medics had stopped doing CPR. Naseem checked Jawad’s heartbeat with a stethoscope, then closed his eyelids.
Hadi lay down on a stretcher to have his eyes flushed. I returned to the patio, where Lieutenant Thamer was sitting on a ratty couch, smoking. The cigarette had burned down to the filter; Thamer seemed to have forgotten it. A policeman walked over and told him that Jawad was dead.
“I can’t hear you,” Thamer said.
The policeman leaned down and spoke directly in his ear. Thamer moaned.
Jawad’s body was put in a bag and placed on the patio, by Thamer’s feet. Thamer looked as if he wanted to move away from it but was too tired to get up. More SWAT-team members had arrived. I spotted Bashar, the policeman who’d saved the video of his brother Salem’s beheading. Blood stained his ammo vest. When Thamer told him that the body bag contained Jawad, Bashar wept silently. A policeman unzipped the bag and removed a silver bracelet from Jawad’s wrist. He handed the bracelet to Bashar, who fastened it on his own wrist.
Another Humvee arrived, and a second dead SWAT-team member was carried out. The corpse, set down beside Jawad, was coated in gray dust. I recognized him as a young man with whom I’d stayed up talking in the abandoned house the previous night. He’d scrolled through his phone, showing me pictures of his father and brother, both of whom were in an ISIS prison in Mosul. He feared for his mother, he’d told me, now that she was alone.
Bashar sat down and covered his eyes with his scarf. No one spoke. Mortars, tank cannons, air strikes, small arms, and high-calibre machine guns continued sounding up the road. After a few minutes, Bashar said, “We need to go back.”
On the road outside, a procession of civilians was arriving from Intisar. Soldiers herded them toward a nearby madrassa, where the men sat on the floor while an informant with a scarf covering his face looked for militants among them. When we left the aid station, we found a member of the SWAT team, Adnan Abdallah, yelling at an old man with a gray beard and a white kaffiyeh. Adnan had just identified the man’s son, Ahmed, as an ISIS militant, and soldiers from the 9th Division had taken Ahmed away. For years, Adnan and Ahmed had been neighbors in Zumar, a village outside Mosul. According to Adnan, Ahmed had joined ISIS the day the group arrived in Zumar.
Adnan, a scraggy twenty-seven-year-old with a black handlebar mustache, volunteered for the SWAT team on the same day as Bashar, whom he considered his brother. (Their fathers were brothers, and their mothers were sisters.) When they signed up, Bashar told me, they “both swore to avenge Salem.”
“You’re the father of that son of a dog!” Adnan shouted at Ahmed’s father. He was with a younger woman, in a blue hijab, and a small boy who clutched the woman’s leg. “I know all his sons!” Adnan told some nearby soldiers. “They’re all ISIS.”
“Calm down,” a soldier said.
The old man had abandoned his family in Zumar long ago and remarried. The woman in the blue hijab was his daughter from his second wife. “You left thirty years ago!” Adnan yelled. “Now you want to vouch for your son?”
“Of course. He’s my son. I know I left them. But I have to speak the truth.”
“He was on the wrong side,” a soldier said.
This statement seemed to make the old man realize the danger he was in. “His mother raised him, not me,” he said.
The soldiers who had been questioning Ahmed returned with him and pushed him through the metal gate of a compound across from the aid station. Adnan and several other SWAT-team members followed them inside. Ahmed was shoved to the ground. He was a small, wide-eyed man with shoulder-length hair, in a faux-leather jacket and a yellow collared shirt. The bridge of his nose was bleeding. He had wet himself.
Adnan, leaning down inches from Ahmed’s face, demanded to know the whereabouts of one of Ahmed’s friends from Zumar, a man named Alawi. Adnan believed that Alawi worked for the Amniya, an ISIS security agency responsible for rooting out spies, dissidents, and resistance fighters—men like Bashar’s brother Salem. “Look at me, Ahmed,” Adnan said. “Where is Alawi?”
“He’s still in Intisar. Adnan, I have nothing to do with him!”
Adnan wagged his finger. “All of you guys are ISIS.”
“Just listen,” Ahmed said. “Let me explain.”
A young soldier in a patrol cap kicked him in the ribs, grabbed a fistful of his hair, and pushed his face down. Another soldier cinched a scarf around his wrists.
Lieutenant Thamer had entered the compound. He put his foot on Ahmed’s ear, pinning his head to the concrete.
“I have nothing to do with ISIS!”
“Shut the fuck up,” the soldier in the patrol cap said, whacking the muzzle of his rifle against Ahmed’s skull.
“Fuck all of you who sold Mosul like pimps,” Thamer said, stepping down harder.
The soldier in the cap hit Ahmed twice more with his rifle. Blood was pooling on the concrete. “Shut up, shut up,” he told Ahmed, although Ahmed had stopped talking. The soldier raised his boot and stomped twice on Ahmed’s head. More blood pooled on the concrete.
Thamer sighed and walked away.
Another soldier crouched down to take a picture with his phone. The soldier in the cap twisted his boot back and forth, as if putting out a cigarette.
Finally, they raised Ahmed to a sitting position. “Why are you doing this?” he said, disoriented. They had emptied his jacket pockets. A string of yellow prayer beads and a lighter lay on the ground.
Bashar stepped forward. “Ahmed, who is working in Intisar for the Amniya? Where is Alawi?”
“He was working with them. But he quit.”
“Ahmed, I swear to God, I’m going to kill you.”
“Brother, I’m bad—but I’m not ISIS. I swear to God.”
“You don’t have a God.”
|Sergeant Hussein Said, of the SWAT team, takes a selfie in front of a dead ISIS fighter, who was killed by a coalition air strike during a clearance operation on the southeastern edge of Mosul. November 5, 2016.|
Several men started hitting Ahmed: with their fists, their boots, their rifles. One of them was the medic who’d been doing chest compressions on Jawad. He was still wearing white latex gloves; they were stained with iodine and blood.
“Who else escaped with the civilians?” Bashar said.
“Only my brother. He got here before me.”
Bashar addressed the soldiers. “All these mortars they’re fucking us with are because these traitors are giving them our coördinates.”
The gate burst open and Ahmed’s brother Mohammad was dragged in. He was freshly shaved and wore blue sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt. A soldier in a scarf punched Mohammad several times in the head. The medic kneed him in the stomach. A young tank crewman in black coveralls whipped his face with a cut length of garden hose folded in half.
“Enough!” an older soldier said. He held a notebook, and although its cover was pink and decorated with roses and rainbows, it lent him an air of administrative prudence. He directed the soldiers to escort Ahmed and Mohammad through the compound to an open stairwell. Squatting in the shadowy recess, the brothers looked like children hiding in a cubbyhole. Bashar pulled aside the man with the notebook and said, “Ahmed was in and out of jail his whole life. He was a thief. Bring me a Koran to swear on. He’s ISIS.”
The man wrote down Bashar’s name.
Two soldiers blindfolded Mohammad and pushed him to the ground. A third soldier stepped on his skull. “If you make a noise, I’ll fuck your mother,” he said.
Bashar returned to Ahmed. “You and Alawi—you’re best friends.”
“Alawi is ISIS, but I’m not! I’ll put shit in Alawi’s mouth!”
“I’m going to explain something to you,” Bashar said, with chilling composure. He was the only man I had not seen touch either Ahmed or Mohammad. It occurred to me that Bashar possessed the same uncanny self-command that Salem had shown in his execution video. “If Adnan had joined ISIS, I would have, too,” he said softly, as if to a child. “When Adnan joined the SWAT, I joined the SWAT. How many times did you and Alawi go to jail together? You were never apart! And now he’s ISIS and you’re a prophet?”
When the man with the notebook asked Bashar to leave the soldiers alone with the brothers, Bashar didn’t protest. Walking toward the gate, he turned around with a last word for Ahmed. “You’re lucky the Army caught you and not us,” he said. “I wish I had seen you in Intisar.”
We left the compound in time to watch Ahmed and Mohammad’s father blending into a new stream of refugees moving toward the madrassa.
“Don’t forget about this man!” Bashar called to the other civilians. “His sons are ISIS.”
The old man pretended not to hear, and kept walking.
That afternoon, in Intisar, the SWAT team was attacked by another suicide vehicle. Someone reported on the radio that the blast had destroyed another Humvee, and had killed Omar Ibrahim, the laconic first lieutenant.
Shortly thereafter, two SWAT-team Humvees filled with wounded fighters appeared in the village with the aid station. Major Mezher climbed out of one of them with a bandage wrapped around his head. Later, he told me, “They fucked us.” According to Mezher, the 9th Division had directed them to an untenable area, out ahead of its tanks, and had then refused to back them up. “I was calling them for help on the radio,” he said. “They never answered. Then I called the commander at the operations center. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sending you support.’ He never sent anything.”
Mezher had returned from the front to ask the 9th Division either for additional Humvees or for permission to withdraw from Intisar. He marched directly to the building where a temporary headquarters had been established, and emerged some minutes later. He was pulling everybody out.
While Mezher went back to the front, to extricate the rest of the team, my interpreter and I squeezed into a Humvee that was headed to the half-constructed house outside Shaymaa.
We weren’t at the house long before another Humvee arrived behind us. The driver was Hadi, the corporal intent on retrieving his wife. He was still caked in dirt, and his eyes were still bloodshot. A lieutenant climbed out, collapsed, and screamed at his men to empty the vehicle, so that Hadi could retrieve more people. While the men tossed ammo and weapons onto the ground, one of them asked Hadi about Lieutenant Omar.
“While we were trying to reach him, they shot our Humvee with an R.P.G.,” Hadi said. “It caught on fire—I had to abandon it there. Someone else is trying to get him now.”
“Go back!” the lieutenant screamed. “Hurry!”
Hadi headed off. The lieutenant lay in the dirt, motionless, a blank expression on his face. When somebody asked him if he was O.K., he did not respond.
I remembered him from Kharbardan. One night, at a house that had a television, I’d stayed up with all the SWAT lieutenants watching a Kuwaiti soap opera about a wealthy businessman and his four wives. During one of the commercial breaks—the only time we were able to speak, so absorbed were the lieutenants by the businessman’s domestic tribulations—they told me that they had made a pact. If any officer was killed in Mosul, the others would do everything that they could to recover his body for his family to bury.
Eventually, a Humvee belonging to the regular police showed up. Omar was inside—alive. After the suicide vehicle exploded, he had been knocked unconscious and buried beneath debris; everyone had assumed that he was dead. Two men draped his arms around their shoulders and helped him over to the lieutenant who had collapsed. Omar, smiling sheepishly, lay down next to him. The lieutenant handed him a cigarette.
We drove back to Hamdaniya, the liberated Christian town. It was dark by the time we got there. Outside the gutted elementary school, men patched up with bloody bandages staggered through the headlights, limping painfully from blast-torqued backs and knees. Stunned, they recounted to one another what had happened, repeating it over and over, trying to understand it.
Colonel Rayyan was there. He observed his devastated unit with stoic detachment. His phone kept ringing: the tone was the theme song from the movie “Halloween.” I saw Dumbuk, who had shrapnel in his face. Hadi arrived with his Humvee, filled with more battered men. A pickup truck was found to take people to the hospital.
Mezher was among the last to return from the front, and when he did he walked past Rayyan without a word, disappearing into the house that the officers had taken.
Of the forty-odd men who’d been in Intisar, twenty-two had been seriously injured and two killed. Nearly everyone else was hurt to some degree. Four of the SWAT team’s seven Humvees had been destroyed and abandoned on the battlefield. Two others were out of commission. Later that night, I met Rayyan in the house where he was staying, by himself. His eyes downcast, his voice almost a whisper, he said, “They defeated us.”
When I went to visit Mezher, the light in his room was off. He was lying on a narrow bed, beneath the covers, wide awake. At the 9th Division headquarters, he told me, the Army had denied his request to pull out of Intisar. “I gave the order anyway,” he said, and smiled darkly. “During Saddam’s time, they would have executed me.” Mezher said that many of his men had been forced to retreat thirty blocks from Intisar on foot, taking cover behind his slow-moving Humvee and returning fire as they walked.
“These ISIS fighters have been very well trained,” he said. “They shoot three bullets at us, and we shoot a hundred. If they launch an R.P.G. and miss, they won’t miss the second. Their snipers made rabbits out of us. We couldn’t even poke our heads out. In war, you have to be honest with yourself. We broke down. I was really fucked up. And no one from the Army was supporting us.” He added, “There are too many civilians. Because of us, a lot of civilians died. In the first suicide attack, I think one whole family was killed, even the children.”
Mezher’s bluster was gone: he spoke quietly and mournfully. He made no mention of revenge, although, I had recently learned, it was as much a motivating force for him as for any other member of the unit. Before joining the SWAT team, he had been a police investigator in Mosul. In one year alone, thirteen men from his unit were gunned down on the street or in their homes. His four closest friends were murdered. In 2004, when he was shot in the face, Mezher recognized the gunman: Mohammad Jamil, a terrorist whom Mezher had been pursuing in connection with a bank robbery. Mohammad had escaped to Syria. Mezher spent months in the hospital, his tongue sewn to the bottom of his mouth so that he wouldn’t choke on it. For the first six weeks, he had to breathe through a stoma in his throat and receive nutrients—orange juice and mashed bananas mixed with milk—through a feeding tube in his nose. After two surgeries, his jaw remained wired shut for seven months, and during that time he ate only soup, which dribbled down his shirt. He could not satisfy his hunger. He became emaciated. Throughout his recovery, he never stopped thinking about Mohammad Jamil. In 2011, after the American withdrawal, an informant told the police that Mohammad had returned to Mosul. Mezher hunted him obsessively but never found him. As far as Mezher knew, he was still in the city, fighting with ISIS. “Even now, when I sleep, he comes to me in my dreams,” Mezher had told me. “If I was offered all the money in the world, I would rather have Mohammad. He never leaves my mind.”
As we sat in the dark room, Mohammad Jamil could not have felt more beside the point. “We should be doing raids—attacking, then coming back,” Mezher said. “On the front line, we don’t even have an extra vehicle to bring ammunition.” He paused. “The SWAT is not ready to fight inside Mosul.”
The next day, outside the school, members of the SWAT team began repairing its three surviving Humvees. I saw Hadi, sleeves rolled up, arms grease-stained to the elbows. When I asked about his family, he told me that, after the SWAT team moved to Intisar, Iman and Khalida had followed the unit there, on the other side of the line. “They were a couple of houses away,” he said. “But then we left again.”
That evening, in a living room lined with suède-upholstered couches, I sat with Colonel Rayyan, watching a flat-screen television. There was little news from Mosul. A Saudi Arabian channel was taking its audience on a C.G.I. tour of the United States Capitol. It was November 8th—Election Day. In the morning, the results were still coming in. One or two policemen grinned incredulously, shook their heads, and said, “Trump?” But, for the most part, their attention was elsewhere. The other shift was beginning to arrive, and the SWAT-team members who’d been on duty were about to enjoy a week off before returning to the war.
III. A Respite From Battle
A few days after the shift change, I met Hadi for dinner at a kebab restaurant in Erbil, where he was staying with relatives. Wearing a striped button-down and new jeans, his mustache and hair freshly groomed, he was hard to recognize. Two other policemen from the SWAT team joined us: Souhel Najem and Ous Ghanem. They were both in their mid-twenties and from the Khadra neighborhood, in Mosul. On off weeks, they shared a hotel room in the Qaysari Bazaar, downtown. After dinner, we headed to the bazaar, which hugs the foot of Erbil’s ancient citadel and is bordered by a park with illuminated fountains, where young Kurds, of both sexes, promenade at night. Souhel and Ous’s room was modest: windowless, with a broken dresser and twin beds. The walls were dirty, the ceiling fan precarious, but it cost less than nine dollars per person per night.
As we sat on the beds, Souhel and Ous said that they spent as little money as possible during off weeks. Like most of the SWAT team, they sent the bulk of their salaries—about a thousand dollars a month—to relatives in Mosul. When ISIS first occupied the city, it had been easy to wire money to residents through official cash-transfer offices. One of the surprising aspects of ISIS’s governance of Mosul has been its interest in presiding over a sustainable economy. Until ISIS opened a front against the Kurds, in August, 2014, people could come and go relatively freely. Before the peshmerga severed the main route to Syria, ISIS trucked in commercial goods from Raqqa and sold them to shop owners at wholesale prices. But, as ISIS grew increasingly paranoid about civilian resistance, it began monitoring the cash-transfer offices. Most of the SWAT team then switched to a hawala system, in which they paid someone in Baghdad or Erbil with an associate in Mosul, who relayed the money to the recipient.
With no money to spend, Souhel and Ous said, their days in Erbil were uneventful. “Sometimes, in the afternoon, we drink,” Souhel said. “In the hotel room. It’s cheaper.”
They talked about what they would do when they got back to Mosul, and what they cherished and missed most about it. For a month, I’d been listening to the SWAT-team members anxiously pine for their city, extolling its parks, night life, architecture, history, and food: Mosul dolma (ground beef and rice wrapped in grape leaves) and Mosul baja (boiled sheep’s head and feet). They all seemed to identify more as residents of Mosul than as citizens of Iraq. Colonel Rayyan, whose great-great-grandfather was born in Mosul, had told me, “Mosul is the most beautiful city in the world. Rivers, forests, markets. Tradition. Education. Some of the oldest churches in the world are in Mosul, and the oldest mosques.” With the enthusiasm of someone eager to communicate the splendor of his home town to an outsider, he’d added, “We even have Jewish neighborhoods—although there aren’t any Jews anymore.”
The men’s love for their city had only intensified in exile. Few of them spoke Kurdish, or had friends in Kurdistan. I suspected that Souhel and Ous, sequestered in their dingy hotel room, spent most of their time off recalling their interrupted lives in Mosul.
When I asked about women, there was an awkward pause. Neither of them was married, and I realized that they must have thought I wanted to know if they hired prostitutes, as many men in Erbil do. They clearly did not.
“Most of the younger guys in the SWAT are single,” Hadi explained, breaking the silence. “For the past two years, there hasn’t been any opportunity.”
“I already know who I want to marry,” Souhel said. “She was my neighbor in Mosul, and she’s still there. I’ve been in love with her for five years. Her name is Tamara.”
Did Tamara know that he loved her?
“She knows—she’s waiting for me,” Souhel said. “I haven’t been able to talk to her in six months.”
Souhel had some good news to share, however: his father and siblings had escaped Mosul a few days ago. They were staying in a camp for internally displaced people, or I.D.P.s, in a village called Hassan Sham. Souhel and Ous had already visited them once, and they were planning to return in the morning. They invited me to come along.
Hassan Sham was about twenty miles east of Mosul, in the “disputed territories” of Nineveh Province—lands to which the governments of both Kurdistan and Iraq lay claim. Before its liberation by the pershmerga, in 2014, Hassan Sham had been a mostly Arab village, with few Kurds. Now it was ruined and unpopulated. One of the questions hovering over the Mosul campaign is what will become of places like Hassan Sham, which ISIS took from the Iraqi Army, and the peshmerga took from ISIS. Will the Arab population be allowed to return? Will the Iraqi Army attempt to remove the peshmerga from the disputed territories by force? The Kurds, who in the past two years have vastly expanded the amount of land that they control, seem uneager to relinquish any of it. Although the camp in Hassan Sham—a vast grid of white tents enclosed by cyclone fencing—was paid for by the United Nations’ refugee agency, it is overseen by the Barzani Charity Foundation, a nonprofit created by Masrour Barzani, a son of the President of Kurdistan and the chief of Kurdish intelligence. The camp’s entrance was guarded by peshmerga soldiers and Kurdish agents.
Venders had parked their trucks along the fence. They were selling bread and produce to people on the other side. The I.D.P.s passed money through gaps in the fence, and the venders threw the purchased items over. The previous week, thousands of civilians had flocked to Hassan Sham, most of them from the eastern neighborhoods of Mosul that the Golden Division had been attacking. Nearly fifty thousand Iraqis had been displaced since the offensive started, and the U.N.’s refugee agency, anticipating more than a million I.D.P.s, was scrambling to set up new camps. The agency, which relies on Western donors, had raised only about half of the roughly two hundred million dollars it claimed that it needed to address the crisis.
I followed Souhel and Ous through the rows of tents until we reached one with a solar-powered lantern hanging near the flap. Souhel’s cousin Hussein Abbas ushered us in. We sat on thin camp-issued cushions (which also served as beds), and were soon joined by Souhel’s seven-year-old brother, Marwan, and his three-year-old sister, Tamara.
“Tamara?” I asked Souhel.
He smiled. “My mother let me name her.”
When ISIS came to Mosul, Souhel had been off duty at his parents’ house. His mother and father had told him that he needed to help the SWAT team, and so he had walked two miles to the Mosul Hotel, where he joined Colonel Rayyan. After the SWAT team evacuated Mosul, Souhel went to Kurdistan, where he got in a fight with a Kurdish man who had disparaged the unit for having run away from ISIS. (This was a sensitive subject for all of the SWAT members. In Kharbardan, Lieutenant Thamer had described the SWAT team’s participation in the Mosul campaign as a form of redemption—a “passport” that would allow it to return home with honor.)
After the fight, Souhel was arrested and sentenced to a month in jail. His mother, who had not heard from him since he’d left for the Mosul Hotel, assumed that he had been killed. She died—from nerves and grief, according to Souhel—before he was released.
The health of Souhel’s father had deteriorated as well. He was in the neighboring tent, bedridden and unable to receive visitors. As the children played with Souhel’s phone, his brother Redwan, who was twenty-two, ducked into the tent. The previous day, Souhel had boasted about Redwan, who’d excelled in high school and intended to become a dentist. He’d been a senior when ISIS came and prevented him from graduating. Souhel told me, “ISIS took him many times because they knew I was in the SWAT. I thought for sure they were going to kill him.”
I asked Redwan what happened when ISIS took him. “They blindfolded me and beat me with a pipe,” he said.
Before we left, I asked Hussein, Souhel’s cousin, if he planned to return to Mosul if it was liberated. I assumed that he was as impatient to go home as the SWAT-team members were. But Hussein said that he had no interest in going back. “We can never live there the way we did before,” he said. “People who were our neighbors for thirteen years joined ISIS and mistreated us.”
Ous, who until now had been staring mutely at his hands—each of which was tattooed with the name of a brother still in Mosul—looked up. “But those people won’t be there after all this is over,” he said.
“I don’t want it anymore,” Hussein said. “Everything in Mosul is finished.”
The next day, I visited Corporal Bilal, who had arrived at the aid station outside Intisar with a partially severed hand. Bilal was at a private acute-care hospital in Erbil. The Army ambulance had evacuated him and left him in the lobby of a public hospital. Public health care in Iraq and Kurdistan is notoriously poor, and after several hours Bilal still had not been admitted. Only skin held his hand to his wrist—and much of the tissue was turning dark. Bilal’s brother Ahmed arrived from the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya, and took Bilal to the private hospital, where doctors immediately performed surgery, connecting some of the arteries in his wrist, to forestall necrosis.
I found Bilal in an electrically reclining bed. The air in the room smelled mildly of rot. His left hand was splinted and bandaged; long metal pins protruded from it. His thumb, his ring finger, and his little finger were black. I asked the obvious question. When would the fingers be amputated?
“They were supposed to do it three days ago,” Bilal said. “The problem is, I don’t have the money because our salaries are late.”
I’d heard the same complaint from other SWAT-team members. Nobody had been paid for two months. Some blamed the politicians in Baghdad; some blamed the commanders in Hamdaniya. Everyone blamed corruption.
Downstairs, I found the hospital’s chief administrator, who told me, “The fingers need to be removed today. The doctor said it must be done as soon as possible. But the patient has to pay what he owes first.”
Bilal owed the equivalent of five thousand dollars. His brother Ahmed was a breadmaker—he had nothing to give. A third brother, a soldier, had been killed in Mosul. In Suleimaniya, Bilal had a wife and five children who depended on his salary. He still hadn’t told them that he was hurt. Normally, when a SWAT-team member was severely injured, the rest of the unit contributed part of their salaries to cover medical expenses and assist his family. (Twice, I’d seen them fill a cardboard box with cash for this purpose.) But no one had money to spare.
The next afternoon, Bilal’s doctor agreed to perform the surgery, with an understanding that Bilal would pay a discounted amount at a future date. The black fingers were amputated successfully. By then, however, the necrosis had spread, and another operation was required to remove the entire hand.
IV. Urban Combat
While I was in Erbil, the SWAT team acquired four new Humvees—and a new mission. Having forsworn working again with the 9th Division, the unit was deployed north of Intisar, to support the advance led by the Golden Division. The previous week, the Golden Division had succeeded in clearing the eastern district of Gogjali. Highway 2, a four-lane thoroughfare, bisected the district; a small cemetery bordered the highway to the south, separating Gogjali from a neighborhood called Al Quds, which was still under ISIS control. While the Golden Division conducted operations north of the highway, the SWAT team would prevent ISIS fighters from crossing the cemetery into Gogjali.
To reach the SWAT team’s new positions, my interpreter and I drove down Highway 2 until we reached a berm that had been heaped across the lanes, and then turned left onto an unpaved road with a decapitated corpse lying in the middle of it. Stray dogs picked at the body; children played nearby. The unpaved road paralleled the cemetery, which lay behind a row of houses. At the end of the row, a perpendicular alley offered a sight line to the brown field of tombstones and, beyond it, the buildings in Al Quds. The SWAT team was in a house on the other side of the alley. A day earlier, a team member had been shot by a sniper while driving across it. We arrived without incident and were greeted by Mohammad Masood, an ample-gutted major whose left arm was ridged with scar tissue from an ambush in Mosul in 2006. Mohammad had turned thirty-nine the day the SWAT team left Kharbardan to follow the Tigris north. This was also the anniversary of the death of his younger brother, a policeman, who was killed in 2005.
I was surprised to discover that Mohammad was in charge, which meant that a rumor I’d heard from Hadi and others was true. After the debacle in Intisar, Major Mezher had been forced to leave the unit. I’d dismissed the story as anxious gossip. It was too hard to imagine the SWAT team without Mezher, and it was still harder to imagine Mezher without the SWAT team.
Mohammad did not appear especially gratified by his promotion. He recalled telling Mezher, “If you come back, the position is yours. I’m just holding it for you.”
Mohammad explained that the SWAT team had occupied several houses along the eastern border of the cemetery, and said that so far the biggest problem had been snipers. Some days earlier, the team had killed a militant who’d been discovered in a house a few blocks away, and who had shot one of them during the encounter.
|Members of the SWAT team take shelter from the debris of a car bomb that they detonated during a clearance operation in the village of Salahiya, south of Mosul. October 20, 2016.|
As if on cue, bullets cracked outside, and Mohammad hurried up a staircase to the roof. Three policemen crouched behind a low concrete wall with several small holes that had been made with a pry bar and a mallet. While one man fired a machine gun through a hole, another used a short periscope to determine where the rounds were hitting.
The snipers eventually quit for the night, but they resumed with gusto in the morning. The SWAT-team members who were not stationed on the roof went to the road behind the house. Bullets zinged up the alley leading to the cemetery. Every now and then, the men backed a Humvee into the alley and aimed a few bursts from the Dushka at Al Quds; they also launched grenades from a turret-mounted MK19. The moment the Humvee pulled back behind cover, more bullets hit the house and the houses around it. They kicked up dirt and slapped against walls. They pierced an empty fuel tanker. They shook the branches of a tree and cut down leaves. They ricocheted off power-line poles, ringing them like bells.
During a lull, a SWAT-team member named Haytham Khalil—whose nickname, Hafadha, the Arabic word for “diaper,” derived from the time a bomb hidden in one blew up on him, dotting his head with scars—produced a firecracker from his ammo pouch and tossed it into the alley. Everybody laughed.
“My sister’s house is on the other side of the cemetery,” Haytham told me. “I call her and she gives us information. She says the snipers shooting at us are Russian. Their base is in a building that used to be a billiard hall. You can see the roof of her house from our roof. When she hangs laundry on the roof, you can see the clothes.”
The family of another SWAT-team member, Walid Sabri, had arrived in Gogjali a few days earlier, after fleeing eastern Mosul. Not wanting to send his relatives—eleven of them, including his wife and his five-year-old daughter, Baida—to an I.D.P. camp, Walid had installed them in an empty house two blocks away. The SWAT team was giving them whatever food could be spared.
Haytham made a comment that caused everyone to laugh, and Walid to blush. My interpreter shook his head.
It seemed that Walid and his wife were separated, and, in accordance with Islamic law, he was forbidden to sleep with her until they’d been officially remarried. In 2014, as the Iraqi military was abandoning Mosul, Walid had told his wife that they needed to flee. She wanted to stay, and the argument that ensued culminated in Walid’s pronouncing the words “I divorce you” and leaving by himself. The decision was prudent: ISIS executed Walid’s brother a couple of months later. Now Walid and his wife wished to reconcile, and they were free to do so—only a third declaration of divorce is irrevocable—but they needed an imam, and until they found one Walid had to spend his nights with the SWAT team.
At one point during the deluge of sniper fire from the cemetery, a small girl with pigtails, in a pink sweater, appeared on the road. As she walked toward the SWAT team’s house, the policemen started yelling.
“No, no! Get back!”
It was Baida. On the far side of the alley—the one we couldn’t cross because bullets were continuously snapping up it—the girl stopped and regarded us uncertainly.
“Turn around! Run!”
Walid called his wife, who emerged from a house a hundred metres away. She yelled at Baida to come back to her, and at last the girl turned and ran toward her mother, pigtails swinging.
One night, while I was talking with Major Mohammad in one of the houses by the cemetery, a lieutenant showed up with two brothers whom an informant had accused of belonging to ISIS. The lieutenant had taken them from their parents’ house, in Gogjali. Mohammad told me to wait in the next room. As he shut the door, I glimpsed the two men on their knees, their hands behind their backs and their heads bowed.
A few minutes later, a SWAT-team member brought the informant to the room I was in and sat him on a couch across from me. A black ski mask concealed his face, but I recognized his clothes. He was a young boy who lived with his grandfather on the road the SWAT team had occupied. They were among the few civilians who had not left Gogjali when the Golden Division pushed through. “If I die here or die someplace else, what’s the difference?” the grandfather, whose three sons had been killed by ISIS, told me. The SWAT team had hired the boy to help out with menial chores: removing trash, buying eggs and bread. I’d been touched by how enamored of the men the boy had become, and how eager he was to please them.
The SWAT-team members had asked me not to speak to their informant, and it was unclear whether the boy had accused the two brothers of having been complicit in the deaths of his father and his uncles. He was upset—that much was obvious. When the door opened and Mohammad summoned him, the boy ripped off the ski mask, perhaps out of a desire to confront the brothers openly, perhaps out of a desire to impress the SWAT team.
I couldn’t hear what was happening in the other room, and, by the time Mohammad invited me to join him there again, the brothers, the boy, and the lieutenant were all gone.
“We let them go,” Mohammad said. “They’re clean. That kid was just making up stories.”
The lieutenant returned an hour or so later. He said that he had brought the men back to their house and apologized to their parents for the false alarm. The SWAT team had decided to release them after consulting two lists compiled by Iraqi intelligence services, each containing the names of ISIS fighters and sympathizers in Mosul. “We have another contact who has very accurate information,” the lieutenant added. “We always check the names with him, too.” Although the lieutenant admitted that the lists could not be expected to include the name of everyone affiliated with ISIS, he said that they were comprehensive enough to function as a standard for determining guilt or innocence.
|A SWAT-team member is treated by Iraqi Army medics, at an aid station in a village east of Mosul, after a suicide car exploded, killing two of his comrades.|
I was skeptical. Given the bitter history of the SWAT-team members, it seemed unlikely that their concern over unfairly condemning an innocent man would eclipse their concern over mistakenly releasing a guilty one. But the lieutenant told me a story that better explained his circumspection. In 2005, American soldiers had rappelled from a helicopter into a compound next to his house and taken away his neighbor. “He was just a mechanic,” the lieutenant said. “He changed tires. But some family that had problems with his family had told the Americans he was a terrorist. They kept him in prison for ten or twelve months. That happened all the time in Mosul.”
The lieutenant repeated the common assessment that many Iraqis had been radicalized in American detention centers, and that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups had successfully recruited within the prisons. (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS, met some of the future leaders of his organization while in American custody, in 2004, at Camp Bucca and at Abu Ghraib.) The SWAT team, the lieutenant told me, would not make the same mistake. “We need to be clear,” he said. “If they’re not on the lists, we should let them go. And if they’re ISIS we should kill them.”
Before the offensive began, Iraqi planes dropped leaflets over Mosul, exhorting the more than one million people still living there not to flee. The logic was that fighting in the city, and minimizing civilian casualties, would be easier with Iraqis contained in their houses than with a chaotic exodus in the streets. As the military continued to encounter stiff resistance in Mosul, some commanders—wanting more liberty to use heavy weapons, artillery, and air strikes—publicly questioned that logic. Colonel Sylvia, the Task Force Strike commander, told me, “The Prime Minister made a decision to tell the people of Mosul to stay in place, and we’ve supported that decision.” He went on, “There’s some criticism on both sides of this. If you take too many people out, you have a humanitarian crisis. If you leave them in, there’s collateral damage.”
A prodigious amount of ordnance has already been deployed in Mosul. During the past three months, the international coalition, fielding a nine-country armada that includes Australian F-18s, British Typhoons, Italian C-27Js, and American F-16s, Raptors, and B-52s, has launched more than ten thousand munitions. Meanwhile, U.S. Army soldiers have supported Iraqi and Kurdish troops with howitzers, mortars, and other long-range weapons.
At the same time, ISIS has developed what the organization Conflict Armament Research, or CAR, described in a recent report as a “centrally controlled industrial production system,” for manufacturing rockets and mortars. CAR estimates that, in the months before the Mosul offensive, ISIS made tens of thousands of uniform rounds, either by welding and machining scavenged pipe or by melting down scrap metal in foundries. Huge quantities of explosives and propellants are also thought to have been imported through “a robust supply chain extending from Turkey, through Syria, to Mosul.” In Hamdaniya, the SWAT team had seized more than two hundred homemade munitions, along with American anti-tank rockets known, during the Korean War, as super-bazookas.
All this firepower had impelled tens of thousands of civilians to leave the city, despite the Prime Minister’s directive. Every day I was in Gogjali, hundreds of dirty, hungry, sleep-deprived civilians wandered up Highway 2. A few dragged wheeled suitcases, but most hauled whatever belongings they’d chosen to salvage in shopping bags or in rice sacks converted into backpacks. Many were injured. During the week and a half that I spent there, I never saw anybody from the government or any international organization providing food or water.
The SWAT-team members periodically helped herd I.D.P.s onto buses or direct them toward the camps, but for the most part they focussed on holding the line along the cemetery. The Golden Division was fighting to clear Aden, a neighborhood west of Gogjali and north of Highway 2. The advance had been costly, and it was agreed that the SWAT team would assume responsibility for Aden while the Golden Division regrouped. When the Golden Division was ready, it would sweep down toward Aden from the north, pinching the militants between its forces and the SWAT team.
While the Golden Division was fighting in Aden, a coalition air strike targeting a suicide car there destroyed the house of Mahmoud Uthman, a senior warrant officer and, at forty-one, among the oldest members of the SWAT team. Mahmoud had served in the Army under Saddam Hussein, and had been a policeman in Mosul since 2005. A thick scar linked his sternum to his navel, from a laparotomy he underwent after being shot five times, in Aden, in 2011, an attack that had also cost him a kidney.
Mahmoud told me that his parents had lived across from him in Aden, and that their house, too, had been hit by the coalition air strike. They had not been seriously harmed, and were now staying at the house of Mahmoud’s younger brother, Ahmed, which was also in Aden.
Ahmed was dead. ISIS had executed him, in 2015, for his resistance activities in Mosul. “Before ISIS, he drove a minibus,” Mahmoud told me. “He took kids to school and brought them home.” Ahmed had decided to rebel against ISIS about a month after it captured the city. He was appalled when it began demolishing holy sites that it deemed heretical, especially an ancient Islamic shrine that was said to entomb the Biblical figure Jonah (who appears in the Koran as well as in the Old Testament). Ahmed organized a cell of sixteen volunteers to assassinate ISIS militants. Mahmoud recalled that when Ahmed revealed his actions, over the phone, he had tried to discourage him: “I told him, ‘You’re a civilian. You don’t need to risk your life.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to let them destroy my city.’ ”
Ahmed asked Mahmoud if anyone on the SWAT team was in contact with the Americans. He wished to pass along coördinates for ISIS bases inside Mosul. Mahmoud gave Ahmed’s phone number to an officer on the SWAT team named Lieutenant Basam Mohammad. Ahmed and Basam began to collaborate. Basam arranged for money to be sent to Ahmed and for the government to buy him a car—a maroon Opel Vectra, which Ahmed and the other members of his cell used to drive around Mosul, recording ISIS positions with a camcorder. In a phone interview, Brigadier General Matthew Isler, the deputy commander of the coalition’s air campaign, told me, “There’s an active resistance movement in Mosul. These are ordinary people, and we absolutely don’t encourage them to get in harm’s way. But there are brave Iraqis of all types doing everything they can to liberate their land. That human network directly feeds the Iraqi Air Force’s targeting enterprise. We work side by side with the Iraqis, and the intel that they get is really good.”
It was during such an operation that one man in Ahmed’s cell was caught and, in captivity, gave up the identities of his comrades, including Ahmed, who subsequently was detained as well.
“There’s a video,” Mahmoud told me. “But I can’t watch it.”
Like the video showing the beheading of Bashar’s brother Salem, it opens with footage of the aftermath of an air strike. Several men, among them Ahmed, confess to working with Lieutenant Basam. “I was hired by Lieutenant Basam, who works with my brother Mahmoud, in the SWAT,” Ahmed says. The video cuts to ISIS fighters placing four men inside a maroon Opel Vectra. Ahmed is not among them, but Mahmoud told me that one of them belonged to his resistance cell. The wrists of each man are zip-tied to a grab handle. A militant launches an R.P.G. into the dirt beneath the engine, and the Opel is engulfed in flames.
Ahmed is then shown inside a small cage, along with two of Lieutenant Basam’s uncles and one of his cousins. A crane submerges the cage in an emerald-green swimming pool. Underwater cameras capture the men drowning. The final sequence in the video shows rope being looped around the necks of seven more men connected to Lieutenant Basam, including his father. The rope is an explosive; when it detonates, the men are simultaneously decapitated.
Since ISIS released the video, Lieutenant Basam had left the SWAT team to work with the command center overseeing the Mosul offensive. He later told me, “This is my duty. The price of our job is the danger we put our families in.”
In Gogjali, I asked Mahmoud when Ahmed had been executed. He took out his wallet and handed me a scrap of paper. In blue pen, he had written, May 19, 2015. 7:53 P.M.
Mahmoud told me that six members of his family remained in Aden: his parents, and Ahmed’s wife and three children. Although nearly all their neighbors had fled the fighting there, they had decided to stay until Mahmoud and the SWAT team arrived.
The team left for Aden in the afternoon, filling the Humvees with blankets, propane tanks, hookahs, cooking pots, weapons, fuel, and ammunition. Hadi, who normally rejoiced at the prospect of action, was in a grim mood. When I asked whether he was nervous about the mission, he shook his head dismissively. Then he explained that he had recently spoken to his wife on the phone. She and her brother were tired of following the SWAT team from place to place, waiting for Hadi to figure out a way to retrieve them. They had argued. Finally, Hadi had told her to remain where she was; eventually, the Army would liberate the entire area.
A colonel from the Golden Division led the SWAT team westward, through wrecked and crowded blocks, deeper into Mosul. The streets became narrower, the houses smaller and closer together. Our route was necessarily circuitous. Many roads were riddled by deep craters, which U.S. warplanes had created to impede suicide cars. Charred Golden Division vehicles blocked other streets. Heavy weapons and air strikes sounded nearby, but it was hard to tell exactly where the front line lay, if there was one.
Whenever the colonel stopped at a position that he wished the SWAT team to take over, you sensed how completely the Golden Division soldiers had habituated themselves to the pressures of urban combat. The way they moved and drove and spoke—their visible fatigue spiked with animal alertness—signalled an instinctive grasp of the environment. The SWAT-team members, by contrast, looked overwhelmed, disoriented.
The colonel brought us to a street in Aden where Golden Division soldiers were crouching behind walls and incoming rounds buzzed from multiple directions. Hadi, Thamer, and a dozen other men scuttled into an empty house. It was getting dark. Mohammad’s radio worked only intermittently. There hadn’t been enough Humvees to move everyone from Gogjali, and Mohammad decided to return to the cemetery and come back with the other men in the morning. I went with him.
The next day, when we returned to the house where we’d left Hadi and Thamer, it was evident that they had passed a difficult night. They told Mohammad that they’d been fighting since we left them, and they were convinced that the SWAT team did not possess the manpower, or the firepower, to hold Aden if the Golden Division withdrew as planned. They feared a repeat of Intisar. Although they were still seventeen men short from that battle, their most urgent concern was their lack of ammunition. The policemen had been shocked to witness how many rounds the Golden Division expended during the night just to keep the militants at bay. And because all the Golden Division’s weapons were American (M4s, M249s, .50-cals), and all the SWAT team’s were Russian (Kalashnikovs, PKMs, Dushkas), the policemen could not borrow bullets from the Golden Division. “Some of them came over here, and when they saw what we’re fighting with they just laughed,” someone told Mohammad. “They said, ‘What the fuck is this? If this is all you have, they’ll come and take you by your shirt.’ ”
“How much ammunition do we have?” Major Mohammad asked a lieutenant.
“Even if you brought ten thousand rounds, you’ll have to go get more,” Hadi told him.
The lieutenant reported that the SWAT team had five hundred machine-gun bullets.
Hadi laughed incredulously.
“The Golden Division isn’t going to leave this place,” Mohammad told the men. “They’ll be right behind us. Why are you afraid?”
“Sir, we’re not afraid,” Hadi said. “We just want ammunition. Look at our magazines.”
“I’m going to the armory now. I’m going to bring all the ammunition that’s inside.”
A tall, skinny policeman shook his head. “They’re betraying us again. I’m not going to sacrifice myself.”
Mohammad seized him by his uniform and jerked him like a rag doll. “You’re not going to sacrifice yourself? What are we doing here? What am I doing here?”
The men all began to argue. “Listen to me, brothers!” Mohammad said. “I already talked to Colonel Rayyan on the phone. He’s bringing more guys.”
“If we get into trouble, who is going to support us?” Hadi said.
“Let them come!” Mohammad shouted. “We have grenades. What’s wrong with you guys?”
“Who here has a grenade?” Hadi asked.
Someone nodded at a tree in the yard. “We have oranges.”
“How many guys do we have right now?” Lieutenant Thamer asked.
“Let’s say forty,” Mohammad said.
“And how many houses do we have to take?”
A few minutes later, Mohammad went to talk to the Golden Division colonel, who was out on the street. My interpreter and I tried to drift within earshot. We heard the colonel say, “You need to take fourteen houses.”
Hadi and the other policemen had gathered on the street as well, insisting that they’d been given another suicide mission. Suddenly, Mohammad dropped his radio on the asphalt. “We are not retreating!” he yelled, his face red. “If today is my day to die, I’m going to die here! Any of the lieutenants who want to die with me, come to this side!”
Thamer, stepping over the radio, said, “Come on.”
“Anyone who doesn’t want to fight, go stand over there,” Mohammad shouted. “I don’t want any cowards.” He waved his sidearm in the air. “Anyone who doesn’t want to stay, I’ll shoot him right here!” He fired a bullet in the sky. “Who’s a coward?”
“Sir, we don’t have any cowards,” Hadi said.
But Mohammad was raging. “Where is the old SWAT? After everything we’ve done? No one was fucking ISIS like us! And now, here, at the end, you want to quit? Shame on us!”
The scolding was effective. No one was going to be caught on the wrong side of that radio. As the men divided themselves into teams, preparing to move to the houses, the Golden Division colonel pulled Mohammad aside.
“We’ll be right behind you.”
“I don’t care,” Mohammad snapped. “We’re not afraid.”
In an apparent compromise, the plan was now to occupy ten houses. I spotted Mahmoud Uthman writing down how many rounds would be allotted to each position. I asked him whether his parents and Ahmed’s wife and children were near us.
He pointed up the street. “Just around the corner.”
As promised, Colonel Rayyan arrived later that afternoon, with more men and ammunition. His cool presence had a mollifying effect on the men, and over the next two days he did what Major Mohammad could not: he scrapped the positions that the Golden Division had assigned to the SWAT team and organized a defense of Aden that was better suited to the unit’s small size and limited resources. Ultimately, the policemen took five houses along a street that extended north until it linked with a contiguous front manned by the Army’s 16th Division. The houses stood on the western side of the street; beyond them lay a mud clearing with a creek running through it. Opposite the clearing was Akha, the neighborhood that the Golden Division planned to attack once it had convalesced.
The SWAT-team members established gunners’ nests on the roofs of the houses and broke sniper holes into the cinder-block walls. They immediately came under fire from Akha. Air strikes shook the foundations; artillery, launched from behind and in front of us, whistled overhead. In Aden, mortars, not snipers, posed the gravest threat. On the second day, a shell landed near an elementary school that Captain Basam had occupied; two SWAT-team members were injured and required evacuation. One of them was Loay Fathy, who, after the controlled detonation in Salahiya and the suicide car in Shaymaa, had suffered his third serious head wound in just over a month.
That afternoon, an ISIS drone circled above us, and, minutes later, another mortar landed a block beyond the house that Rayyan and I were in. Rayyan went to have a look, and reported that a man on the street had been killed. The man’s young son had been maimed. “I don’t think he’s going to survive,” Rayyan’s driver told me.
Incredibly brave, or incredibly death-obsessed, ISIS gunmen ignored the F-16s in the skies and attacked the SWAT line from the very edge of Akha, sometimes even venturing into the mud clearing. A few days after we arrived in Aden, Rayyan sent Hadi to bring more food and ammunition to the school where Captain Basam was, and I went along. The school was a large two-story building that jutted into the clearing—and therefore was exposed on three sides. We had to duck low while climbing an exterior staircase. A corridor ran the length of the second floor, ending at an open doorframe that gave onto a landing. A bedsheet had been hung from the frame, but you still had to hew to the corridor walls, because the snipers in Akha sometimes shot through the sheet. We found Basam, the only officer there, in a classroom, with eight enlisted men. While Basam inspected his resupply, I chatted with a young policeman named Hamadah, who was cleaning the lenses on a pair of antique binoculars. He had been injured by a car bomb in Mosul in 2008. A scar spanned his face, crossing his nose, and the area around his left cheek was peculiarly concave, like a dented mask.
“They’re a hundred and fifty metres away from here,” Hamadah said. “All the houses over there have sniper holes.”
Souhel, the policeman I’d met in Erbil, was also at the school, and I followed him to the landing. We crawled on our stomachs, under the bedsheet. Outside, two machine guns were propped, on bipods, in front of small holes in a waist-high wall. The floor was covered with spent ammunition. Peering through a hole, I could see the houses across the clearing and, behind them, the yellow dome of a mosque. Souhel drew my attention to a house with a corrugated-tin roof and several square windows missing their panes.
“There are three ISIS in there,” he said.
Soon, we saw someone flit by a window. Hamadah joined us, with his binoculars. He watched through one hole while Souhel fired the machine gun through the other. Several minutes went by with no response. Then a mortar landed close enough to move the entire school. I crawled back to the classroom. Another mortar landed even closer. A third exploded so thunderously that we thought, mistakenly, that it had hit the building.
People were screaming. I followed Basam downstairs and outside. A crater gaped in the street; a metal cistern raised on stilts was spewing water. The screams came from a house around the corner. We pushed through a gate and found a man in a tracksuit lying in the driveway. Before we could attend to him, a woman came out and yelled that more seriously wounded people were inside. She led us into the living room, where an older, shirtless man sat on a couch. Blood smeared his torso and was splattered all over his pants. People were holding sopping red cotton pads to both sides of his face. He was having trouble breathing. When he saw us, he pitched forward, as if to say something. Instead of words, blood spilled from his mouth.
A young boy lay at the man’s feet. He was also shirtless and bleeding heavily from wounds on his torso and his legs.
It was a challenge to focus. The living room was crowded with screaming relatives and neighbors. While we worked on the boy, a woman began shaking my shoulder and shouting in my ear. I had to push her away. My interpreter later told me what she’d been saying: “Don’t let my son die!”
Basam carried the boy outside, to Hadi’s Humvee. We turned our attention to the old man. Absurdly, a woman was suturing a gash on his face with a needle and thread. It looked as if she’d dipped her hands in a bucket of red paint. I cut the thread and tried to shoo her off. A minute later, while attending to the wounds on the man’s legs, I looked up and saw that she was stitching him again.
We soon ran out of bandages. Members of the SWAT team helped the man into the Humvee. The boy was in the back, beside the man from the driveway, who had a broken leg. Hadi climbed behind the wheel and headed toward Gogjali, where the 16th Division kept its ambulances.
Soon after we returned to the second floor of the school, an air strike from a coalition jet produced a tremendous blast across the clearing. Our satisfaction was short-lived. An imam called through the loudspeakers mounted on the mosque with the yellow dome. “God protect Mosul!” he cried. “God destroy the unbelievers! God destroy the apostates!”
Several more mortars landed around the school. It was time to leave. A lieutenant from another position had stopped outside, on his way to the house that Colonel Rayyan occupied, and Basam suggested that we go with him. The lieutenant blinked slowly, resisting sleep each time he closed his eyelids, and he grinned in a punchy way, as if drugged. With incongruous formality, he explained to me that he hadn’t slept in two days. “Last night, they came so close,” he said. “We killed one with a grenade.”
While we were getting into the Humvee, we saw something surreal: a woman carrying a bag of groceries up the street. She walked to the front door of a damaged building directly opposite the school. When Captain Basam tried to tell her that she shouldn’t be there, we discovered that the woman was deaf and mute. Basam pointed at the crater in the street and made an exploding gesture with his fingers. The woman responded with her own hand signals, which seemed to mean: This is my house. Where else can I go? Whatever will happen will happen.
Most of the civilians in Aden had already moved to the camps. There were simply too many mortars. One afternoon, I accompanied Colonel Rayyan to another SWAT-team position, which was next door to a house that had been shelled a few days earlier. A man, his wife, and their five daughters had been living in the house; the mortar had killed the man. His bloody kaffiyeh still lay in the gutter outside. Rayyan agreed to bring the widow and her daughters to the camp in Hassan Sham. They emerged from the house in black abayas and hijabs, towing luggage and weeping. As SWAT-team members ushered them toward Rayyan’s Humvee—they had to sprint across an alley exposed to snipers—one of the daughters dropped to her knees and kissed the ground.
The Golden Division launched its attack on Akha the next day. All week, the temperature had been dropping—it was about forty degrees—and now it had begun to rain. From the roofs of the houses along the line, the SWAT team shot everything it had into Akha. Iraqi Army helicopters buzzed above, launching rockets across the clearing. I was on a roof with two SWAT-team members when one of them noticed a car—presumably, a suicide vehicle—driving toward the Golden Division’s line. Rayyan called it in. As night descended, mortars continued to land around us.
At ten o’clock, while I was in a house midway down the line, a terrific explosion sounded near the elementary school. A melee broke out. It was pitch-black outside and impossible to discern who was shooting where. The combat sounded extremely chaotic and quite near.
An hour or so later, the noise died down, and Colonel Rayyan returned to the house. He was in high spirits. ISIS, he told us, had attacked Basam’s position, in an apparent bid to draw elements of the Golden Division away from Akha.
“We handled it ourselves,” one of Rayyan’s bodyguards declared. He was clearly pleased that the SWAT team had not had to call on the Golden Division for support.
The next morning was still cold and rainy, but everyone, even Rayyan, was in a celebratory mood. Akha had been liberated.
For the first time since arriving in Aden, five days earlier, the SWAT team could exhale. Released from the fear of ambush, the men loitered on the street, smoked cigarettes, drank tea. When Rayyan took a Humvee back to Hamdaniya, to meet with the leadership of the Nineveh Police and collect more ammunition, I caught a ride out of Mosul with him.
|In Gogjali, a neighborhood of Mosul, members of the SWAT team sleep in an abandoned house near the front line. November 22, 2016.|
A few days later, from Erbil, I called Souhel to see how things were going. He told me that, shortly after I left Aden, three ISIS fighters had crossed beneath the mud clearing in a tunnel that the SWAT team had not noticed. The tunnel led to a house behind the unit’s line. The policemen had surrounded the house, and an hours-long firefight had ensued. Dumbuk was shot in the leg and the arm. Eventually, a group of SWAT-team members reached the roof of the ISIS-held house. One of them, Hussein Ali, was shot there.
I remembered a story that Hussein, a shy and affable man in his early twenties, had told me. After his first girlfriend, Dunya, broke up with him, he’d had her portrait tattooed on his arm. “For revenge,” Hussein had said, rolling up his sleeve and revealing an elaborately detailed image. Recently, though, he’d begun saving money for a new tattoo, to cover Dunya’s portrait. He’d fallen in love with the daughter of an Army colonel, in Baghdad, and they were engaged.
When Hussein was shot, his older brother, Marwan, was down on the street, with Rayyan and the rest of the team. Marwan ran toward the house and was shot himself. Marwan survived his wounds. Hussein did not.
Souhel said that, after Hussein died, the SWAT team bombarded the house relentlessly until two in the morning, killing all three militants inside. Then the policemen chained the corpses to the backs of their Humvees and dragged them through the streets of Aden.
Dumbuk was taken to the hospital in Erbil, where doctors removed the bullet in his thigh (the bullet that hit his arm had travelled clear through), sold him a pair of crutches and a bag of medicine, and discharged him. His parents and siblings were all still in Mosul. But his relatives from Shaymaa—the aunt and uncle and five cousins whose neighborhood we’d been able to see from Lieutenant Omar’s sniper position—had made it out of the city safely, and were living in a camp near a village called Khazer, just up the road from the Hassan Sham camp. Souhel told me that Dumbuk was staying with them while he recuperated.
I visited the camp in Khazer a couple of days later. It was almost identical to the one in Hassan Sham, except triple the size, with thirty-five thousand residents. (The Kurdish government was rushing to construct a new camp nearby, Khazer 2, which would absorb six thousand more people.) Dumbuk’s uncle Mohanad and several of his cousins met me near the main gate and apologized for the fact that their tent was at the back of the camp. It took a while to walk there. Recent rains had turned the bulldozed paths between the rows of tents to mud. Outside the toilets and next to the water stations, teen-agers hawked refugee provisions: flip-flops, flashlights, cigarettes.
Inside Mohanad’s tent, we found Dumbuk reclining on a cushion, his arm in a sling and his injured leg extended. As usual, he greeted us with laughter and dirty jokes. While his cousins served tea and candy, we talked about Hussein. I asked about Hussein’s fiancée, in Baghdad, and Dumbuk told me, “They were supposed to get married this Thursday. The unit already bought everything for the wedding.”
Dumbuk’s aunt prepared lunch. She did not have a lot to work with; Mohanad explained that whenever charities delivered food or other aid at the camp they always unloaded their trucks at the first row of tents inside the gate. Nevertheless, it was an impressive spread: rice, beans, radishes, tomatoes, and scallions. As we ate, Dumbuk told me that as soon as his leg and arm healed he planned to rejoin the SWAT team. He was happy to see his relatives, but he missed the front line.
Before I left, I told Dumbuk that I had to ask one last time: How had he come to be nicknamed after a drum?
Dumbuk demurred again, saying only, “I’ve been called that since I was a kid.”
“I can tell you,” Mohanad said.
Dumbuk grinned, shook his head, and looked away.
“When he was a boy, the bigger children always used to beat him up,” Mohanad said. “Dumbuk was small, and so they used to pick on him all the time. But, no matter how much they kicked and punched him, he never cried. He would just laugh at them. Once, his mother and I were talking. She said, ‘He’s like a drum. You keep hitting him and he never breaks.’ ”
In late December, Iraqi security forces suspended operations in Mosul for two weeks. Commanders characterized the adjournment as a “refit” period, during which vehicles could be repaired and ammunition resupplied. The Iraqi military protects casualty figures like state secrets, but it seems probable that the pause in fighting was necessitated, in part, by the large number of dead and wounded. Earlier in the month, the U.N. released a statement announcing that nearly two thousand coalition fighters had been killed in November alone. After the Iraqi military disputed the claim, the U.N. acknowledged that the number was “largely unverified.” Whatever the toll may be, the only people I’ve spoken to who have not expressed alarm about the military’s casualty rates are people who are comfortably removed from Mosul.
The U.N. has stood by an estimate of civilian casualties in Mosul in November: nearly a thousand, killed by coalition bombardments, by suicide cars, and by ISIS snipers, who deliberately target them as they flee toward government forces. There is a dire shortage of food and water, and ISIS increasingly conscripts civilians to serve as human shields, executing those who don’t comply.
Late one night in early January, Hadi, who was deployed with the unit, received a phone call from Iman. She and his daughter, Khalida, had made it out of Mosul with a group of civilians, and were now in Hamdaniya. Hadi drove there the next morning. At first, Khalida didn’t recognize him. “She had seen pictures of me—old pictures, in Mosul,” Hadi said. “She was a bit confused. It took some time.” After Khalida realized who he was, Hadi said, “I felt finally at ease. I felt finally rested.”
On January 8th, after the offensive resumed, the Golden Division reached the Tigris River. Two weeks later, eastern Mosul was declared to be liberated, although sleeper cells may remain. What happens next is uncertain. Coalition jets, aiming at undermining ISIS reinforcement capabilities, have disabled all five bridges connecting the two halves of the city. Confronted with an isolated western Mosul, some foresee an interminable siege, reminiscent of the one in Aleppo, where, for years, the Queiq River divided rebel and regime neighborhoods. Others are more optimistic. Colonel Sylvia, the American commander, said of ISIS, “They have been throwing resources at this eastern fight. They’re retaining plenty of capability in the west, but the defeat in the east will lead to a precipitous fall of morale.” The SWAT team is currently stationed by the Tigris, and Colonel Rayyan is eager to cross it. “The western side will be easier,” he predicted. “Now they’re encircled, and they lost a lot of soldiers on the eastern front.” Time will tell.
In December, I went down to Qayyarah, about forty miles south of Mosul. Major Mezher, after leaving the SWAT team, had assumed command of a new police unit there. It was his first day on the job, and I found him in an old administrative building, unpacking his bag. I watched as he brought out his uniforms and peeled the SWAT-team patches from their sleeves. While we spoke, Adnan called him to say hello; the previous night, Mezher had been out in Erbil with other members of the SWAT team. “We’re a family,” Mezher often said. He didn’t have any civilian friends. “Civilians don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them,” he had told me in Kharbardan. “The only people I trust are my own men, these men around me.”
Now, in Qayyarah, he yelled into the hall, for a third time, for someone to bring him a hookah. He seemed embarrassed. “They don’t know me yet,” he explained.
Nearby oil fields, which ISIS set alight last summer, were still burning. The air in Qayyarah was dark. A sickly film coated everything. When my driver and I left Mezher and were on our way out of town, we crossed an intersection with a giant flag on a tall pole. I asked the driver to stop, and I turned around to check the flag again. Yes, it was black. Almost. You had to look hard to make out the Iraqi colors showing through. ♦