By Luke Mogelson
February 06, 2017 Issue
I. Up the Tigris
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 moustache 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 neighbourhoods, 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, armoured 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 neighbourhood 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. coordinates 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 behead 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.”
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 neighbourhoods 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 armoured 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 bed sheets and pillowcases—flags of peace. Outside a village called Salahiya, the tanks and armoured 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 centre 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-coloured 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 humour. 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 Defence. 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.”
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 sulphur factory on fire.
Luke Mogelson will publish “These Heroic, Happy Dead,” a collection of stories, in April.