‘Something’s going on in the Old City,” said the Iraqi fixer, jumping off the phone with another fixer already in Mosul.We were a two-vehicle SUV convoy, mostly journalists and fixers, headed into the city, where, on Sunday, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory — perhaps an ominous gesture. Other pockets of ISIS remain in Iraq, such as in Talafar, and of course in Syria. On a national holiday in Iraq, many Iraqi soldiers were casualties. “Maybe that report about the 300 Daesh was right.”
The University of Mosul is among the first of ISIS’s cultural casualties one sees on entering East Mosul, where many residents still live. It was here in 2014 that Mahmoud al-Asali, a Muslim law professor, was reportedly killed for condemning ISIS’s treatment of Christians. It was here that the mosque built over Jonah’s tomb was destroyed in a campaign of cultural genocide, which preceded a campaign of genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and others.
On the other side of the Tigris, most of West Mosul is thoroughly uninhabitable, though a surprising number of people manage to survive here. Amid the concrete rubble and dust, those who survived ISIS and several months of savage combat don’t resemble a liberated people. After years of alienation by Baghdad’s Shia government, many of Mosul’s Sunnis welcomed ISIS in 2014. Today they look devastated, broken. The cradle of ancient civilization is the epicenter of present-day barbarism. Everything is in ruin. Everywhere, cars, trucks, and even tractor trailers are upended, the result of airstrikes or suicide car bombs. “Stalingrad,” says Sebastian Backhaus, a photojournalist from Berlin.
“They’re still fighting,” says a fixer apparently trying to explain why he didn’t bring any flak vests for protection. “ISIS snipers everywhere.” He’s spent the better part of the last three years shuttling journalists and NGOs into and out of dangerous places in Iraq. The fixer, maybe as much as anyone in Iraq, wants this war to be over.
Several armored Humvees race past as we enter the Old City. “You can be standing next to the dead Daesh and not even see them,” the fixer says. That might’ve been true a couple of days ago. We park and get out. One smells the rotting corpses immediately. The body of an ISIS soldier is a few feet away. His insides have been blown out, excrement and blood and innards are mixed into a fly-infested blackness beneath his crumpled remains. The stench is pronounced in the 112-degree heat. There’s small-arms fire a few blocks away. And then a hellfire strike. “This is intense,” the fixer says. “Two days ago, it was silent here.”
“They’re backed up to the river,” an Iraqi soldier says. A Humvee pulls up from the direction of the fight to a makeshift medic station, formerly a small butcher shop. Two wounded Iraqi-army soldiers are brought out of the Humvee, one on a stretcher, the other limping and stunned. The latter appears to be in shock, shrapnel in his face, arms, chest, and legs. The other is on a stretcher, a hole in his knee with bone protruding out a couple of inches. He yells aloud intermittently while soldiers and medics hold him down. He’s sedated and then transferred by Humvee to a real medical facility.
“They’re cornered now,” says a soldier through an interpreter. “They’re down to suicide vests.” Everywhere the defeat of ISIS is imminent, especially in Mosul. And somehow the fighting continues.
Perhaps the end of ISIS means that the Middle East will give way to modernity. More likely, the indoctrinated youth and martyr-heroes of Mosul will give rise to more terrorists around the world.
A few hundred meters down the road is what remains of al-Nuri Mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic caliphate. Just over three years later, it lies in ruin, like Mosul — and most of the territory Daesh occupied. An Apache appears above, empties its payload at ISIS.
A spirited, middle-aged Iraqi-army non-commissioned officer named Nabil hops out of a Humvee and offers his report. “It’s all foreign fighters,” he says. Chechens. Afghans. Westerners. He points to the rubble where, he claims, for a skeptical Spanish journalist, lies the body of a Chinese ISIS soldier. The unexploded ordnance, booby traps, and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) deter her from further inquiry. The journalist is exhausted; the soldiers are exhausted. Only ISIS seems indefatigable. “I cannot go home until Daesh is killed,” Nabil says, lighting up another cigarette.
A Humvee pulls up with another wounded Iraqi soldier, this one with injuries across the torso, arms, neck, and head. His face is cut up and bloody. He can’t be 20 years old. He’s in terrible pain and visibly terrified. He groans and they sit him up. The IV slowly takes effect. After he’s stabilized and moved, an American medic gives a summary for those who were standing a few feet away. “He has a hole in his throat but it wasn’t sucking air. He’s got some shrapnel wounds. You saw how badly his face was shredded up. Grenade, I think. But he should live.” Not every Iraqi soldier will be so fortunate this day.
A few of us move down a street toward “the front” — not an altogether meaningful term in urban warfare. The fighting intensifies. Still more corpses. Who is and is not ISIS is a source of speculation. Many of these dead are civilians, some children. “That’s the corpse of a woman,” says one journalist. “I think it’s a little girl,” says a fixer. Whether they were executed hostages or collateral damage, many of the dead are civilian. By the end, only ISIS and hostages remained in the Old City. Leaflets on the ground dropped by allies warn of the caliphate’s imminent defeat, but that did little to help hostages.
The same day it is announced that apparently al-Baghdadi is confirmed dead. ISIS was rumored to have executed anyone who publicly acknowledged that the caliph was dead — the kind of suicide spiral commonplace at the end of such cults. The story of Hitler Youth teens shooting elderly German conscripts in Berlin who told them to abandon the fight in 1945 comes to mind. Maybe ISIS murdered their hostages; maybe ISIS turned on each other. It seems safe to assume that the corpse in Afghan attire was ISIS.
On the other side of a building to our front, perhaps 300 meters away, a blast is followed by a plume of smoke. “Suicide bomber,” says one of the Iraqi soldiers. Several minutes later, a Humvee speeds past going to the butcher shop; an Iraqi soldier tossed on the hood appears unconscious or perhaps dead. There were six other casualties.
An Iraqi soldier named Ghasem stops his Humvee to drive me toward the front. Like many here, he’s somehow of good cheer. He makes a quick stop next to other soldiers, whose vehicles bear images of the Ayatollah Khomeini and other Shiite figures — images not likely to remain during the reconstruction effort.
The Americans serving here were children when America invaded Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi children of Mosul, living and dead, weren’t yet born. The fighting in Iraq continues.
In 2015, a senior American diplomat told me he thought that President Obama was letting this extreme version of Sunni self-governance cure radicalism by way of exhaustion. The faces of the citizens of Mosul suggest that Obama may have been right, at least about the exhaustion. What a terrible price to achieve that Westphalian moment — when wars of religious sectarianism break believers of their dogmatism, when other identities emerge. Perhaps the end of ISIS means that the Middle East will give way to modernity. Perhaps. More likely, the indoctrinated youth and martyr-heroes of Mosul will give rise to more terrorists around the world. This fight is not going away.
The ISIS scourge is likely to be with us for a long time, just as the mujahedeen of Afghanistan linger today, in spirit if not in the flesh. Afghan corpses rot in the July heat in Mosul. Each iteration is worse than what preceded it, such that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda now appear moderate by comparison — so moderate that it takes much squinting to distinguish most Syrian Islamist rebels from al-Qaeda. It is also a global threat: If every ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist could be killed today, the financial and ideological support network is sufficient to substantially reconstitute these organizations within a few years. Indeed, many of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria are from the West — and will return there to die martyrs.
Three years of the caliphate destroyed the work of millennia of civilization. Three years of the caliphate inflicted lifetimes, if not generations, of trauma. The physical rebuilding of Mosul will probably take decades. But the healing of the Iraqi people will take generations — healing that can begin only when the violence stops. The mission in Mosul is nowhere near accomplished.