By Jeff Speyer
The neighbourhood of Hay al-Arabi in eastern Mosul city has the appearance of a place recently visited by apocalypse. This was one of the last areas east of the Tigris River vacated by the Islamic State organisation, before the advance of the Iraqi armed forces in late January. The river now forms the line separating the various forces of the Iraqi government from the jihadist fighters.
The signs of recent battle are everywhere in the neighbourhoods along the river, testimony to the nature of the fight that took place here. One must traverse enormous craters, now filled with water from the February rains. These are the product of the US Air Force, whose B-52s played a vital role in softening up the jihadists and destroying emplacements and arms supplies before the Iraqis moved in.
In the side streets, the metallic and scorched skeletons of cars are strewn everywhere — evidence of the employment of suicide car bombers, who have emerged as one of the most notable and dangerous tactical aspects of the jihadist way of war in Iraq and Syria.
In the courtyard of one ruined house, the mangled and misshapen remains of a black-clad suicide bomber are among the rubble. Islamic State fighters have turned self-annihilation into a tactical instrument. For them, homicide by suicide is no longer a practice especially designed to produce terror in the opponent. It is merely a tactical option. Jihadists in Mosul routinely wear suicide belts. If cornered, or facing capture, they detonate them, with the arithmetical intention of taking as many of their enemy with them as they can. These black-clad clumps and the soot and rubble around them are the result.
Islamic State propaganda on a wall in east Mosul.
And for all this, life is coming back to Hay al-Arabi. Even among the ruins, civilians may be seen, their belongings on wooden carts, making their way back to what remains of their homes. Men, women and children.
The evidence of trauma is very clear. It may be seen in the hard, sidelong stares with which strangers are acknowledged here. Strange, piercing, direct-eye contact that seems to contain within it an element of entreaty, along with a certainty that some of the things experienced in Mosul in recent weeks defy communication.
This is Iraq's second city, with a remaining population of about 650,000. It no longer resembles an urban centre.
.There is still small-arms fire coming from close by, from neighbouring Rashidiya. But the civilians in Hay al-Arabi largely ignore it. The army has cordoned off this neighbourhood, though officially it is described as "liberated." The official explanation is that the jihadists are shooting from the other side of the river. Noise, confusion and rumours proliferate. Welcome to the battle for Mosul
So how is the fight against Islamic State in Iraq's second city going? Slower than expected, but in the right direction, is the verdict of Captain Ra'ad Karim Qasim of the Golden Division. I catch up with Qasim and the men of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces' Najaf battalion in the al-Beker neighbourhood of the city, south of Hay al-Arabi. They are preparing to withdraw from the city, to Bartala to its immediate south. There, they will wait for the order to begin the final part of the assault on Islamic State in the city.
The 1st Iraqi Special Forces Division is taking the key role in the fight for Mosul. Its 10,000 fighters form part of an independent command structure, answering directly to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The ISOF men we meet are clearly exhausted. But morale is high. This US-trained force has borne the brunt of the fight against Islamic State throughout Iraq. Established by the Americans after the 2003 invasion, it is a separate structure from the Iraqi Army. ISOF was the first force to enter the city, on November 1. It has pushed on, slowly and steadily, deeper into the city since then. Accurate casualty figures are impossible to come by in Iraq, but all accounts suggest that many, many ISOF men have died in Mosul.
"At the beginning of the operation, we came in mainly with vehicles, and we met with suicide cars and IEDs in the street, so we had to change our tactics," Qasim says. "So we moved at that point to fighting on foot. We'd enter IS-controlled neighbourhoods by night. We'd come in divided into seven-man sections. IS tried to use the suicide cars against them. But on foot we were able to use subterfuge, conceal ourselves, enter houses, and so on."
Captain Ra'ad Karim Qasim
Speaking from his headquarters in a large private house in the Beker neighbourhood, Qasim paints a picture of a chaotic, terrifying combat zone, one in which jihadist resistance is slowly and remorselessly being ground down.
"Sometimes as many as five suicide cars would attack us at a given time. But as the battle progressed, the number was reduced. They began to use civilian cars instead of the improvised armoured cars they'd had at the beginning. Suicide bombers on motorcycles too."
Islamic State has continued to produce surprises, even as it retreats. A particularly notable aspect of the fight for Mosul city has been the employment by the jihadists of commercial drones as weapons of war for the first time.
The drones are used for reconnaissance missions, with cameras attached to them, and as weapons of war, able to drop grenades on the Iraqi forces. They are able to target vehicles as well as groups of fighters, and are obviously intended to produce fear and disorientation. It is easy to imagine the effect the sudden appearance of one of these customised commercial toys, carrying an explosive payload, might produce.
"We try to shoot down the drones using sniper rifles," Qasim says. "But sometimes they're too high, so we just have to hide ourselves."
ISOF General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, speaking at his headquarters in the village of Basakhra outside Mosul, explains the relatively slow and grinding progress of the special forces into the city as deriving not from the particular prowess of the jihadist tactics. Rather, he says, "we're moving slowly out of concern for civilians. We've told civilians to stay in their homes. If we told them to leave, IS would begin to slaughter them.
"But because of the presence of the civilians, we have to limit the use of planes and heavy weapons." This, in turn, increases the casualty rates for the special forces.
ISOF is the main attacking force being used by the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State in Mosul. Its task is to spearhead the attacks in the most difficult areas and to conquer ground.
Once the ground is taken, it is handed over to the Iraqi Army or the Federal Police — the paramilitary units of the Interior Ministry. Irregular fighters attached to the Popular Mobilisation Units are also present in the city.
The differing quality of the forces available to the Iraqi government necessitates this process. Neither the army nor the Federal Police has the training or the abilities of the ISOF. The result is that the special forces are suffering very heavy casualties — as high as 50 per cent in some formations, says a recent report in Politico.
The Iraqi Army, which collapsed before the advance of Islamic State in the summer of 2014, still lags far behind the ISOF in its capabilities and motivation.
A visit to the 16th Infantry Division in the north of Mosul confirms this. The troops are older and very obviously less physically fit. The equipment is less well-maintained, even the security surrounding the position is laxer.
US policy appears to have been to invest in ISOF as a centre of excellence. But if the hope was that this would then serve as an example for the larger army, it does not yet appear to have taken place.
The Interior Ministry's Federal Police were largely responsible for the conquest of southern Mosul in early January.
The forces there are currently engaged in the task of dealing with IEDs left by the retreating jihadists, and ensuring supervision of the provision of food supplies and the reconnecting of electricity in the conquered areas.
Members of the force freely acknowledge the gap in capabilities between themselves and ISOF. They note the more complex training made available to the special forces by the US as the obvious explanation for this.
It looks likely that heavy losses or not, ISOF will lead the way into densely populated western Mosul in the next phase of the operation, when it comes.
Civilian life under IS rule
For civilians in the newly recaptured areas, the departure of Islamic State does not represent anything as simple as the return of legitimate government and the departure of an occupying force.
Mosul is an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab city. It was a stronghold of support for the old regime of Saddam Hussein. Many of its inhabitants welcomed the jihadists when they arrived in the summer of 2014. They saw Islamic State as a force directed against the Shia-dominated Baghdad government, which they viewed as the main source of their troubles.
As Mohammed Fadel Khdeir, from the Tal al-Roman neighbourhood in western Mosul tells me, "the (government) army had mistreated us before. Too many checkpoints, too much harassment. So it's our fault, what happened to us. We welcomed ISIS (Islamic State) when they came. And in the beginning there were no checkpoints, no ID cards, as they'd told us. But then they became much harder on the people. ISIS promised freedom, but they are doing the same thing. So now we are tired of them too."
A woman from Mosul at a refugee camp in Syria.
Ahmed Ali Obeid, from the same neighbourhood and now living in the Khazer refugee camp just outside the city, says: "There is no food now in western Mosul, and no gas to make food. So people began to use wood to make fires. Then ISIS stopped people from cutting wood — they wanted it just for themselves.
"You can get 15 to 20 lashes for not going to prayers, or for smoking. And of course the punishment for giving information to the army is death. They'll hang you and leave your body hanging up for three days, then cut it down and let the dogs eat it."
The stories told by the many refugees I interviewed depict an Islamic State regime combining religious obscurantism and pedantry, an extreme capacity for cruelty, and a certain brutal incompetence. We hear of mortars fired at the army which fell short and resulted in the deaths of civilians in jihadist-controlled areas, of bizarre punishments for women who failed to wear veils or cover their hands, of long mandatory hours spent in the mosques listening to endless sermons from emirs (commanders). Of strange edicts against the placing of gravestones (regarded by Islamic State as a form of idolatry) and of the teaching of methods of execution and slaughter to young children in the jihadist education system.
There is a chronic shortage of medicines for people under jihadist control. Punishments for the possession of unauthorised SIM cards are fierce. Loudspeaker vans trundling through the streets issue exhortations to the residents to abandon and denounce non-Sunni Muslim spouses or relatives.
Yet for all the bizarre cruelty of the details gleaned in hours of conversation with refugees, it's clear that Sunni Arabs willing to obey the rules and remain silent could maintain a semblance of normal life under Islamic State rule.
This reporter was among the first to interview the Yazidi refugees fleeing the advance of Islamic State in Syria in the summer of 2014. They gave details not of stringent and bizarre punishments but of mass slaughter, rape and enslavement. The difference between that population and the people of Mosul is their religion.
For all the cruelties of Islamic State rule in Mosul, the jihadists were holding authority there over a Sunni population they regarded as their own.
War without end?
These stark sectarian dynamics of Iraq mean that many Sunni residents are now mainly afraid not of the departing Islamic State forces, but of the government troops coming in, and with them the possibility of revenge attacks.
The Iraqi government forces make little or no attempt to hide their Shia sectarian allegiances. On many of the Humvees of both the army and the special forces, one sees large flags bearing the visage of a serene, bearded figure. These are banners of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam and a key figure of veneration for Shia Muslims.
The flags contain the accompanying exhortation "labayek ya Hussein!" (At your service, o Hussein). They are markers of Shia identity and loyalty. And for Sunni residents of Mosul, they are an ominous sign of what may come.
"There will be sectarian war again," predicts Mahmoud al-Yunis, a Sunni refugee from the city, from his tent in the Khazer camp. "The situation will remain the same after IS goes. The army will do the same as they did before. They will come to take revenge. Everyone thinks this.
"The army wants revenge for the Speicher massacre," he says, "but they'll take it on the innocent." (The Speicher massacre was the systematic slaughter of 1566 Shia Iraqi Air Force cadets by Islamic State during its lightning advance across western Iraq in 2014.)
So what of the future? "People are afraid to talk," says Ahmed Ali Obeid. "They keep it in their heart. But if people had a chance to leave, they would all leave."
"Iran has its hands all over Iraq," concludes al-Yunis, "Iran is taking revenge on Iraq. Revenge on the Sunnis."
The ISOF, army and police commanders interviewed for this article indignantly reject any accusations of sectarianism among their forces but the picture is not simple. The fighters of ISOF in particular appear to have a genuine ethos of non-sectarianism and Iraqi identity. Captain Qasim proudly points out that among his officers are Kurds and Sunni Arabs. But this notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Iraq will break the sectarian spiral, even after the defeat of Islamic State.
The Hussein flags can be seen even on the vehicles of the special forces. And in the empty land west of the city, the openly sectarian Shia militiamen of the PMUs are assembled. The powerful militias from the Shia south that make up this gathering are political forces as well as military ones.
The most potent of them, the Kata'ib Hezbollah group led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the Badr Organisation of Hadi al-Amiri, are supported and financed by Iran, and pursue a frank agenda of Shia ascendancy. These, and not the US-trained ISOF, are in tune with the stark realities of intercommunal war that underlie the dynamic of events in Iraq.
Civilians stand in a queue to receive humanitarian food aid being distributed by the Iraqi Red Crescent.
One is reminded irresistibly of WH Auden's lines from September 1, 1939: "I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
The fight for Mosul is of course not yet over, or close to over. The west of the city remains to be conquered. It is more densely populated than the east. The roads are narrower. Use of air power will be restricted by the need to preserve civilian life. Islamic State follows a practice of burning tires in areas it controls so as to obscure the vision of aircraft and make the differentiation between civilians and combatants even harder.
So the special forces will need to go in on foot again, and to face the suicide car bombs and drones and snipers and IEDs of the Sunni jihadists. The Najaf battalion has withdrawn south to Bartala and preparations for the next phase are proceeding apace. It is not possible, of course, to know from which direction the assault on western Mosul will begin. But the deployment of forces seems to indicate it will not be a frontal attack across the river. Rather, the government forces may well begin their advance from the south, from the area of Hamam al-Alil, across the open ground.
For the remaining Islamic State fighters in the west of the city, the choice will be to fight or die. There is no exit for them. To the west, after all, wait the Shia militias. These forces are not interested in taking Islamic State prisoners. So the jihadists, thought to number now only about 3000-4000 men, will seek to defend the warrens and alleyways of western Mosul using the tactics that by now have become familiar.
The broader questions regarding Iraq's future, meanwhile, will not be settled by the outcome of the Mosul battle. The fight in the city's west looks set to continue for some months. Islamic State will, inevitably, eventually, be defeated.
Volunteers clean their neighbourhood after the defeat of Islamic State fighters in eastern Mosul, Iraq.
But Islamic State was able to sink deep roots into the Sunni Arab population of central Iraq not because of the special appeal of its particular brand of Islam but because of the sectarian dynamics that govern Iraqi political life. These will not disappear with the last of the jihadi fighters. The Hussein banners on the Humvees, and the stark fears and smoldering resentments of the refugees all attest to that.
In the meantime, the civilians are heading back to Hay al-Arabi and the corpses and the rubble are slowly being cleared away. The ISOF fighters are resting, and waiting for the order to move forward to the west of Mosul. The jihadists of Islamic State, somewhere among the warrens and alleys of western Mosul, are also preparing for the battle to come. There remains much killing and destruction to come.
The present, grinding round of fighting, meanwhile, looks likely to serve merely as a prelude to the next round. This country, which has not known peace for 30 years, still looks far from achieving it anytime soon.