Dispatch from Mosul: The battle to clear an ISIS stronghold

Reporting from the battle to clear the Islamic State stronghold where a war of succession to the old Middle East order is taking place amid the ruins.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) are seen after a car bomb explodes during an operation to clear the al-Andalus district of Mosul of Islamic State militants, January 17 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) are seen after a car bomb explodes during an operation to clear the al-Andalus district of Mosul of Islamic State militants, January 17
(photo credit: REUTERS)
EASTERN MOSUL CITY, IRAQ ‒ “So, I’m a sniper, right, and I see four Islamic State guys approaching. I’m on a roof. I take down two of them. Then the rifle jams and they’re coming forward. I make it down the stairs and I throw a grenade as they’re in the courtyard of the house. One of them is killed, the other is badly wounded. He’s lying there in a bad way, can hardly move, so I disarm him ‒ he has a rifle and a pistol.
“He’s calling to his friend, it seems ‒ in Russian. He was a Russian. But the friend isn’t answering because he’s dead. So, he looks over at me and he can see I’m making the pistol ready. I don’t speak Russian and I guess he realized the friend wasn’t answering.
So, he looks at me and he says to me in Arabic ‘Don’t you fear God?’ I tell him ‘No’ and put two bullets in his brain.”
Zeidan, a wounded fighter of the Hashd al Watani militia, badly hurt in the fight against Islamic State in the Hay al-Arabi section of eastern Mosul City, finishes his story with a delighted laugh.
He shows me a picture of the man he killed on his phone. There is a bushy black beard beneath the shattered skull. Then a picture of a damaged Russian passport found on the body. “He was probably Chechen,” I say.
“Most of the Russian citizens you’ll find with ISIS aren’t Russians. They’re from the Caucasus.”
“He’s Russian,” Zeidan replies. “He was speaking Russian.” I begin to say something else, and then decide not to bother.
A man rides by the ruins of the University of Mosul, January 30. The university was destroyed in fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic State. Much of the city has suffered massive damage during the fighting (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man rides by the ruins of the University of Mosul, January 30. The university was destroyed in fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic State. Much of the city has suffered massive damage during the fighting (photo credit: REUTERS)
We are on the way to the Hay al-Arabi neighborhood, which was captured from the Islamic State a few days before. Zeidan is on crutches and with one of his arms bandaged.
He was wounded in the ferocious fight for the area that took place a few days earlier.
The neighborhood adjoins the Tigris River, which, for now, is the line dividing the various forces engaged on behalf of the Iraqi government from the jihadis of ISIS.
We are a curious crew, one British-Israeli journalist (myself); one wounded fighter of the Hashd al Watani; and a Syrian-Kurdish fixer doing the driving. I have come to check the progress of the campaign to recapture Iraq’s second-largest city from the Islamic State.
The offensive has proceeded slowly.
Commencing on October 17, Iraqi forces reached the outskirts of the city by November 1. Then the going got tougher. The 8,000 ISIS men in Mosul, facing an attacking force of about 10 times that size, have proved to be a ruthless and imaginative enemy.
The vehicle convoys of the attacking forces found themselves harried relentlessly by suicide car bombs careening out of the side streets halting convoys that then would be strafed with small arms fire, mortars and grenades.
Islamic State used drones in large numbers for the first time. Quadcopters, commercially available toys – but fitted to carry grenades or cameras for reconnaissance.
The jihadis succeeded in creating a terrifying urban battlespace. The death toll was high, in particular among the black-clad special forces of the Counter Terror Service, who were bearing the brunt of the fighting.
ISOF troops conduct a search of a house near the university, January 15 (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISOF troops conduct a search of a house near the university, January 15 (photo credit: REUTERS)
ON DECEMBER 13, the Iraqis paused to consider their strategy. The attack resumed December 29, beefed up by 4,000 troops from the Interior Ministry forces known in Iraq as the Federal Police.
The tactics had changed. No longer in convoy, the Special Forces now comprised sections of seven men ‒ on foot and preceded by heavy air activity and artillery fire.
The Americans had knocked out the five bridges separating east and west Mosul. The jihadis began to run short on supplies east of the river. The car bombs grew more primitive.
Just regular cars filled with explosives, no longer the armor-plated behemoths of the first days. Harder to spot, but a lot easier to destroy when revealed.
The government forces started to roll up the neighborhoods of east Mosul, and the jihadis fell back to plan their last stand in the narrow alleys and warrens of the western city. That was where things stood.
Hay al-Arabi was a mess. The huge craters left by the aerial bombing were filled with rainwater. The results of bombing from the air have a way of reminding a person of their own tiny dimensions – the sheer huge destructive power available and the sense and fact of the impossibility of escape if your number is written on the bomb.
The fight in Hay al-Arabi had been conducted street by street and house by house.
There were still skeletons of suicide car bombs littering the roads.
The people, too, seemed half-dazed. They had a way of staring at you ‒ directly, unflinching for a long time. Neither hostile nor friendly. As though they wanted to ask you a question but could not quite find the words. On one street, a young man about 20 years old approached us. He was bearded, with a scarf wrapped around his neck and with the usual glazed Mosul look.
“Come and see that suicide car over there,” he began in Arabic. “There’s something interesting there.” He was leaning very close to me and I had a sudden fear that this might be one of the “sleepers” that ISIS had left in the neighborhood, zeroing in on me as a foreigner with a camera. No one else reacted, though, so I followed him over to the remains of the car and looked at where he was pointing, with a nervous smile on his face. “Rijal, rijal [leg]” he said.
And, yes, there it was, plainly visible. A black, toasted-looking human foot. It presumably belonged to the suicide bomber who died while detonating this car. No one had got around to clearing it up yet.
“Do you have Facebook?” the young man demanded as we walked away. “I do,” he continued. “Look me up. My name there is ‘loveyoursmile.’” We left loveyoursmile to his cars and remains and kept moving. Hay al-Arabi was full of similar macabre items of human destruction: Bombed-out houses and rocks strewn across the streets. Black soot from explosions. In the courtyard of one house, more remains from a suicide bombing. Here, the bomber’s body had not been completely destroyed, and one could make out a sort of shape in the lump of red flesh wrapped in what had once been a black uniform.
Fighters from the Shi’ite dominated PMU militia are seen in the devastated Hay al-Arabi neighborhood in early January (photo credit: JONATHAN SPYER)
Fighters from the Shi’ite dominated PMU militia are seen in the devastated Hay al-Arabi neighborhood in early January (photo credit: JONATHAN SPYER)
THERE WAS huge damage to a number of civilian houses, too. ISIS used the primitive tactic of burning tires and oil to create a cloud of black smoke in the skies above the areas they controlled. The intention was to blur visibility for coalition aircraft, making effective targeting more difficult. The result was greater damage to civilian life and property.
Of course, the jihadis could turn such losses into propaganda, so from their point of view, such methods were without a negative side. Their own targeting was on the primitive side, as well. As a result, there had been damage to civilian houses in eastern Mosul from ISIS mortar shells falling short.
Eastern Mosul is now divided into areas of control of three forces – the Iraqi Army, the Special Operations Forces (ISOF) and the Federal Police. The black-clad troops of ISOF have taken on the heavy lifting and have suffered heavy losses.
The three forces are a study in contrasts.
The ISOF are the most impressive, the Iraqi Army the least. We caught up with the Najaf Battalion of the Special Forces in the Beker neighborhood of the city, which they had captured from ISIS a week earlier. Captain Ra’ad Qarim Kasem took us through the mechanics of the battle from his unit’s point of view.
He stressed the crucial role played by coalition air power in destroying the five bridges between west and east Mosul, preventing ISIS from supplying their fighters east of the river. The jihadis had tried to move across the river by boat during the night hours but the destruction of the bridges had led to the gradual depletion of their resources.
The men of the Najaf Battalion were clearly exhausted. They were set to move from Beker south to the village of Bartella over the coming days. There they would prepare for the next phase of the operation – the conquest of western Mosul.
ISOF is a force created and trained by the Americans; its senior officers train with the US Army Rangers, and because of its higher quality, it is paying a very heavy price in casualties.
The Iraqi government does not release casualty figures, but reports have suggested numbers as high as 50% in some special forces units in the recapture of eastern Mosul.
A visit to the 16th Infantry Division of the Iraqi army in northern Mosul creates a very different impression. Here were the familiar strutting, overweight commanders and amused, bored and indifferent soldiers who have characterized every contact I’ve had with the Iraqi Army ‒ the positions poorly guarded, armored vehicles left outside with no guards and civilians standing around nearby. If the US hoped the creation of ISOF might, through a trickle-down process, lead to improvements in the broader army, I saw no evidence of this in Mosul.
THE FEDERAL Police in the Intissar neighborhood in the south of the city were more impressive ‒ their vehicles well maintained, their position properly secured. To refer to these forces as “police” is a misnomer. They are a paramilitary force comparable to similar Interior Ministry troops in other Arab states.
However, Maj.-Gen. Ali Lami, commander of the 5th Division of the Federal Police, who I interviewed in al-Intissar, freely acknowledged that his forces lacked the training of ISOF. The Federal Police possess an elite force, called the Emergency Response Division, which took part in offensive operations against ISIS in eastern Mosul, but the main force is used only for holding areas once ISIS has been expelled from them.
There are other forces present in the city and this is where the simple story of ISIS vs. the legitimate armed forces of the elected government of Iraq begins to get complicated.
Alongside the three branches of the Iraqi ground forces already mentioned, there is an additional force, the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU). Here may be found the Shi'ite militias mobilized in the desperate summer of 2014 when ISIS looked to be headed toward Baghdad.
The PMU is dominated by a number of large, Iran-supported Shi’ite militias. Most media reports say they have been kept out of Mosul City for the offensive partly over concerns of possible sectarian retribution against the Sunni inhabitants of the city, and at the request of the US-led coalition. The big Shi’ite militias are, indeed, now located to the west of the city. There, they form a kind of blocking force that prevents ISIS fighters in Mosul from retreating in the direction of Syria.
However, we witnessed the presence of elements of the PMU in the city itself. Although the fighters in question did not come from the big Iran-supported militias, their presence is nevertheless significant.
The first group we witnessed were members of the Shebek minority, a mainly Shi’ite ethnic group native to Ninawah province, in which Mosul is situated. They belonged to the Quwat Sahl Ninawah (Ninawah Plains Forces) and were mustered 13 kilometers east of the city in the Bartella area. Their base, which flies the PMU flag, is located just a few hundred meters from a facility used by the US Special Forces.
The second group from the PMU witnessed inside Mosul is “Hashd al-Ashari” (Tribal Mobilization). This is a gathering of members of Sunni tribes opposed to ISIS and willing, for their own pragmatic reasons, to work with the Baghdad government against them.
Their presence is a reminder that one should avoid simplistic overuse of the Sunni vs. Shi’ite paradigm when considering Iraq.
The Beduin are interested in resources, power and security arrangements, and see no reason, necessarily, to work alongside disruptive and anarchic Sunni formations such as ISIS. The US exploited the same pragmatic and power-oriented approach when they turned the tribes of Anbar against the Sunni insurgency during the “surge.”
It is interesting to see that the government of Iraq, its Shi’ite militias and the Iranians behind them are now engaged in the same business. They are probably aware of the lesson the Americans learned at that time ‒ that the loyalty of these tribes costs money and resources and is likely to continue for just as long as such support is provided. Or, as one former Israeli official familiar with these dynamics put it, “The Beduin tribes are not for sale. Not at all. They are, however, available for hire.”
From the PMU’s point of view, it is a smart move to put their Sunni clients into Mosul; it avoids raising the fears of the people of the city and probably also the attention of the US-led coalition, which distrusts the Shi’ite militias. It is, nevertheless, a demonstration of power and relevance.
There are unconfirmed reports of Badr Brigade checkpoints very close to the city.
Whether or not these are accurate, what should be understood is that the PMU are a major part of the fight to clear the Islamic State from Ninawah Province, of which the Mosul operation is a part.
This has implications on the political level for Iraq.
The PMU, in the Iranian style, are gradually building up that mixture of political and independent military power that characterizes the Iranian approach. So far, it has brought Tehran to effective dominance of Lebanon and a good part of Syria. This strategy is now underway in Iraq, forged by capable cadres such as Abu Mahdi Al- Muhandis and Badr’s Hader Al-Ameri, with Qasem Suleimani of the IRGC above them. This is taking place under the noses of the US and its allies who broke and remade Iraq in 2003 but have yet to understand these dynamics.
On the way out of the city one evening, we came across a convoy of US armored vehicles and artillery pieces trying to find its way to the road to Erbil. The convoy was organized by one of the US Army’s most storied and historic units, the name of which is not relevant here. We tried to speak to the officers at the head of the halted convoy, expecting to be told to make ourselves scarce. Instead, to our astonishment, the officers greeted us effusively, asking, “Do you know Arabic? Great. Can you help us?” It turned out that these officers had planned a route down to Erbil and then on to Qayara on their map without checking with the local Kurdish commanders in the areas through which they wanted to travel. As it turned out, one of the bridges they wanted to cross couldn’t carry 88mm. cannons. But they also had set out without a translator and that’s how we found them helplessly trying to explain the situation to drivers who knew not a word of English while trying to work out how to plot another route even as darkness fell.
Of course, we helped them and set them on their way. And, of course, it would be wrong and simplistic to draw strategic lessons from tactical difficulties. All the same, watching these young men, members of the mightiest military on the planet, trying, helplessly, to make themselves understood and make sense of their map, it was impossible not to be reminded of the larger confusion of Western policy vis-à-vis Iraq and the surrounding countries.
When this confusion is contrasted with the smart, deliberate assembling of military and political strength by the Iranians, often quiet and unseen, just next door to the Western- created forces, one might be concerned.
Perhaps this will change in the near future.
But, at least for now, as the Islamic State gets ready for its last stand in western Mosul, it is plain to see that the real winners of what is to come are the independent structures of power the Iranians are building inside Iraq ‒ most visibly manifest in the Popular Mobilization Units. “Iran has its hands all over Iraq,” as one Mosul refugee at the Khazer camp outside Mosul told us.
The old order in the Middle East is smashed and gone. Still, one sees odd remnants and reminders of it.
In eastern Mosul, an oddly beautiful, if grandiose, shell of a mosque that Saddam Hussein began building in the 1980s to bear his name is still there. Islamic State, no respecter of icons, used it as a factory to make IEDs and car bombs.
The war of succession to the old order is taking place amid the ruins of the old structures, and Mosul is currently one of its epicenters.
There is much bloodshed to come. Islamic State will be forced out of western Mosul.
As for what is coming next, much will depend on whether the West can finally learn to map-read in the Middle East.
In the meantime, at the root level, war in all its suffering and grandiosity and strangeness is the ruler of Mosul, and of Iraq. Its subjects are the civilians with the glazed eyes wandering the ruins of their neighborhoods and the fighters taking their rest and preparing for the fires ahead.
This is a dominion that appears to be in no danger of being eclipsed any time soon, regardless of which of its protagonists gains the advantage in the next phase.