Reporter's Notebook: A personal journey through Mosul’s war with ISIS

War is also addictive. The artillery concussions ring deep in the body. Advancing to the front gives one fear and a sense of being alive.

A MAN carries his daughter on his back after fleeing their home due to fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters in Mosul’s al-Zanjili district in Iraq (photo credit: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO)
A MAN carries his daughter on his back after fleeing their home due to fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters in Mosul’s al-Zanjili district in Iraq
(photo credit: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO)
Shifa Gardi was a Kurdish journalist for Rudaw Media Network when she was killed in the battle for Mosul in February 2017. She was born in 1986 as a Kurdish refugee in Iran during those brutal years when Saddam Hussein launched his genocidal Anfal campaign against Kurds. She died investigating mass graves from executions that Islamic State fighters carried out in Mosul when they conquered the city in 2014.
When I visited the offices of Rudaw on Ronaky Street in Erbil in March, there was a commemorative poster of Gardi on the front of the building. Hers was just one of many tragic stories of lives lost that I have encountered in the last two years. The battle for the city, now almost at its inevitable conclusion, has lasted almost eight months, and the war around it has gone on for three years.
Shaheen Khalaf was a translator remembered as a poet and dreamer by his friends. He worked with volunteer medics of the Free Burma Rangers and was shot by an ISIS sniper while rescuing a young boy. He was from the Yazidi minority, targeted for genocide by ISIS, and had volunteered to go back to help civilians under fire from the extremists. He was my friend on Facebook, but I never met him.
Others survived the battle but were badly wounded. There was a young Kurdish officer with a Peshmerga unit of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). In Kurdistan fighters are often affiliated with political groups. In July of 2016 his unit was manning a small front line overlooking the town of Bashiqa. It had a few concrete bunkers and sandbagged positions with heavy machine guns. A giant ditch in the road protected them from suicide vehicles, which ISIS is proficient at using.
Destruction in Mosul , Iraq amid the fight against ISIS in April 2017 (SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
In October, when the Mosul offensive began, his men moved north to carry out an attack on ISIS that was designed to capture Bashiqa from the rear by surrounding it. Kurdish Peshmerga are very sensitive to casualties; they didn’t want to waste men in a frontal assault on ISIS gunmen hiding in tunnels in the town. I drove up to cover the offensive on October 20. At Nawaran, the village where the Kurds had begun their assault opening the way to Mosul, the Peshmerga were moving through open fields of dry grass, under sniper and mortar fire, and there was chaos. Ambulances carried wounded from the field. Hundreds of men had come from their homes on short notice seeking to aid the assault. They carried a plethora of different weapons and wore various uniforms, some in traditional Kurdish clothes with sashes around the waste, and others in fatigues purchased at military surplus stores in Erbil. AK-47s, German G-3s and M-16s rounded out their kits. One man brought a motorcycle to ride to the front, through the snipers. A pickup we hitched a ride with had a man on the back who kept massaging his grenades strapped to his tactical vest. He had a mischievous smile. Here was humanity in the midst of conflict.
That day I couldn’t find my acquaintance from the PAK. When his unit did materialize toward nightfall, the men were exhausted and none of them spoke English well. I showed them photos from July. “Where is this officer?” I asked. “He was shot. He’s been taken to hospital.” Another victim.
I went to Mosul looking for war, first with the Kurds and then spending time with the Iraqi security forces and US forces. Part of my reason for going was a sense that ISIS crimes were similar to those of the Nazis – their executions of people for ethnic and religious reasons, their cruelty. To document and tell that story felt like a duty. Also, as an American, there was a sense of returning to a place I grew up with. George H.W. Bush sent Americans on Operation Desert Shield when I was 10. Friends and family served with the US armed forces in Iraq after 2003.
War is also addictive. The artillery concussions ring deep in the body. Advancing to the front gives one fear and a sense of being alive found nowhere else, except perhaps in extreme sports or fighting fires. Nos morituri te salutamus, “We who are about to die salute you,” I whispered in Mosul. It was drowned out by the Shi’a marching ballads a colleague insisted on playing on the radio.
I found more fear of the Shi’a militias running the checkpoints outside of Mosul than in the battle. War is certainty. Kidnapping or abuse at checkpoints is uncertain. In the end much of the fear is irrational, like the fear of being attacked by giant camel spiders in Iraq.
When we look back at the battle for Mosul, it has a sense of inevitability, like a black hole sucking in the stars around it. An ancient trading city on the Tigris made monstrous and modern under Saddam Hussein, it was once diverse, with Christians, Shi’a and Sunnis, Kurds, Jews, Yazidis, Shabaks and other minorities.
After Saddam fell, it became the center of the Iraqi insurgency. Saddam’s sons died in a shootout with the Americans in 2003. But by 2008 Iraqi terrorists, composed of Sunni jihadist groups such as al-Qaida, were averaging 20 attacks per day. Massive bombings were common, often targeting Kurds and other minorities. The insurgency was “defeated” by the US troop surge, but its adherents went underground and waited. When ISIS came in 2014, it was greeted by cheers.
There are contradictory narratives about Mosul’s complicity in ISIS crimes. Some described it as a city of merchants who just watched regimes come and go. When ISIS came, they briefly fled to the Kurdish region and then returned. Former Iraqi Army soldiers, Ba’athists from the Saddam era, told me in interviews that they didn’t initially flee ISIS. They preferred the “stability” of the Saddam era, and even ISIS was better than Nouri al-Maliki, the “stooge of the Iranians” and prime minister of Iraq from 2006 to 2014.
They reminded me of the Germans who just watched Nazism grow in supposed passive acceptance, always complaining about the Treaty of Versailles. A professor from the University of Mosul, which ISIS burned, said his five sons stayed behind. “They need engineers and electricians, and my sons were professionals and needed a job. They didn’t want to have their houses confiscated. Of course, ISIS is cruel; we do oppose it,” the rotund academic said in June 2015. He was still speaking with his sons by phone, living under ISIS.
There was an absurdity to the lead-up to the battle of Mosul. At Kurdish positions on Bashiqa Mountain we would smoke cigarettes and look down on the sparkling lights of Mosul in the distance. On the front line the electricity came in spurts from a generator. Internet access was rare. Yet ISIS had Internet, phones, an electric station. It was under “siege” but living better than those laying siege. Why not cut the power? That would be wrong, commanders said; the million civilians still in Mosul would starve. Even the Iraqi government kept paying some of their salaries in Mosul up through mid-2015. Peshmerga fighters were being paid in arrears, but ISIS members were living well.
Is this modern war? The good guys are poor, the bad guys have villas and know the US coalition won’t bomb them, for fear of harming civilians.
Once the real Iraqi Army operations for Mosul began, they were slow, like an anaconda digesting its prey. Black-uniformed elite counter-terrorism Iraqi Special Operations Forces got chewed up in street fighting. The blue-uniformed Federal Police had to take the lead in the west. Shi’a militias, wearing balaclavas emblazoned with white skulls, like the Punisher, stood guard at checkpoints, their flags sometimes showing the sword of Ali, dripping with blood. They were the avenging Soviets of this war.
Five thousand ISIS fighters had to be killed, one by one, in their tunnels that they built from house to house. It has taken eight months, longer than the battle of Stalingrad, but cost fewer lives than battles of past wars. In fact, fewer lives were lost in the battle for Mosul than in one day at the Somme, or at Antietam. Iraqi security forces loses are probably less than the Americans suffered in the Tet Offensive.
The human face of this war is its survivors, the soldiers and civilians. In Mosul, under the pitter-patter of gunfire, civilians collected food from a truck in early April. One young girl’s colorful dress stood out amid the black most women wear. But when she turned back to smile, half her head was burned, her skin disfigured. It was like the face of northern Iraq and the Kurdish region, disfigured from 40 years of war.