‘So I’m a sniper, right, and I see four IS guys approaching. I’m on a roof. I take down two of them. Then the rifle jams. And they’re coming forward. So I make it down the stairs, and I throw a grenade as theyre in the courtyard of the house. One of them’s killed outright. The other’s badly wounded. So he’s lying there, in a bad way, can hardly move, so I disarm him, he has a rifle and also 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?’ So 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 IS 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 IS 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.
We are on the way to the Hay al Arabi neighborhood, 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 previously. 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 IS. 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 17th, Iraqi forces reached the outskirts of the city by November 1st. Then the going got tougher. The 8000 ISIS men in Mosul, facing an attacking force of about ten times that size, proved 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 which would then be strafed with small arms fire, mortars and grenades.
Islamic State used drones in large number 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.
On December 13th, the Iraqis paused to consider their strategy. The attack resumed on December 29th, beefed up by 4000 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 now, no longer the armor plated behemoths of the first days. Harder to spot, but a lot easier to destroy when you did.
And so 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 it was up to.
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 the 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.
In one street a very young man, of about 20, 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 IS had left in the neighborhood, zeroing in on me as a foreigner with a camea. 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 had presumably belonged to the suicide bomber who had died while detonating this car. No one had got round 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.
There was huge damage to a number of civilian houses too. IS used the primitive tactic of burning tyres and oil to create a cloud of black smoke above the skies of 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, too. As a result, there had been damage to civilian houses in eastern Mosul from IS 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. 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 IS 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 IS from supplying their fighters east of the river. The jihadis had tried to move across the river by boat in the hours of night. 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. Because of its higher quality, it is paying a very heavy price in casualties. The Iraqi government does not release casualty figures, but some reports have suggested as high as 50% casualties in some special forces units in the course of 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 that have characterized every contact I’ve had with the Iraqi Army. The positions poorly guarded, armored vehicles left outside with no guards placed on them and civilians standing around nearby. If the US hoped that the creation of ISOF might lead by a sort of rippling out process 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, Major General 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 IS in eastern Mosul, but the main force is used only for holding areas once IS has been expelled from them.
There are other forces present in the city. And this is where the simple story of IS 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. This is the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU). Here may be found the Shia militias mobilized in the desperate summer of 2014, when IS looked to be headed toward Baghdad.
The PMU is dominated by a number of large, Iran-supported Shia militias. Most media reports note that they have been kept out of Mosul City for the offensive, partly because of concerns at possible sectarian retribution against the Sunni inhabitants of the city, and at the request of the US-led coalition. The big Shia militias are indeed now located to the west of the city. There, they form a kind of blocking force, preventing IS fighters in Mosul from retreating in the direction of Syria.
However, we witnessed the presence of elements of the PMU in the city itself. 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 Shia ethnic group native to Ninawah province, in which Mosul is situated. They belonged to the Quwat Sahl Ninawa (Ninawah Plains Forces) and were mustered 13 kilometers east of the city, in the Bartella area. Their base, flying 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 the ‘Hashd Ashari’ (Tribal Mobilization). This is a gathering of members of Sunni tribes opposed to IS, 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 over-use of the Sunni vs. Shia 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 IS. 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 Shia 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. Namely, 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 Israeli former 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 attentions of the US-led coalition, who distrust the Shia militias. It is, nevertheless, a demonstration of power and relevance.
There are unconfirmed reports of Badr Brigade checkpoints very close to the city. But 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 which characterizes the Iranian approach. It has so far brought Teheran to effective dominance of Lebanon and a good part of Syria. This strategy is now under way in Iraq, forged by capable cadres such as Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Badr’s Hader Al-Ameri, with Qassem 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 who 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 went to try 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 Qayarra on their map, without checking with the local Kurdish commanders in the areas through which they wanted to travel. And as it turned out, one of the bridges they wanted to cross couldn’t carry 88mm cannons. But they had also set out without a translator, and were hence when we met 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 the darkness was coming down.
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 to make sense of their map, it was impossible not to be reminded of the larger confusion of western policy vis a vis Iraq and indeed the surrounding countries.
And when this confusion is contrasted with the smart, slow 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 that 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. One sees odd remnants and reminders of it. In eastern Mosul, an oddly beautiful if grandiose shell of a mosque that Saddam 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. 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 which 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.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer