By Luke Mogelson
February 06, 2017 Issue
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 armoured 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 neighbourhood on Mosul’s south-eastern edge. The swat team was directed to an adjacent neighbourhood 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 laboured 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 anaesthetics. “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.
Map by La Tigre
The battle in Shaymaa was proving difficult. An armoured 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 neighbourhood; 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 sledge hammered 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.
That night, gunmen attacking the swat team’s line approached so near that we could hear them crying “Allah u 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 defence of Intisar, the neighbourhood 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 Quran, 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.”
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 Madrasa, 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 Keffiyeh. 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 neighbours 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 moustache, 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.”
Several men started hitting Ahmed: with their fists, their boots, and 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 Quran 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 Madrasa.
“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 centre. 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 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.