By Luke Mogelson
February 06, 2017 Issue
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 striped button-down and new jeans, his moustache 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 neighbourhood, 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 splendour of his home town to an outsider, he’d added, “We even have Jewish neighbourhoods—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 neighbour 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 Peshmerga, 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.
Vendors 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 vendors 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 bread-maker—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 neighbourhood 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.
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 enamoured 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.
I was sceptical. 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 neighbour. “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 centres, 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.
Luke Mogelson will publish “These Heroic, Happy Dead,” a collection of stories, in April.
Source: newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/06/the-desperate-battle-to-destroy-ISIS ?mbid