As the fight to liberate Iraq’s second largest city from Daesh enters its final bloody phase, David Pratt reflects on his time spent covering the battle and the troubling question of what might follow.
It was a bitterly cold, starry night. I lay awake in the car listening to the explosive thuds reverberating in the distance, the bombing having intensified. Getting out to stretch my legs, my eyes adjusting to the light, I gazed at the constellations. The sky, though clear, revealed no signs of the US-led coalition warplanes. But they were there, somewhere, ploughing deep furrows of sound before dropping their deadly payload that made the horizon flicker sporadically like a candlelit room. There would be little sleep that night and, although I didn’t know it then, even less in the days ahead.
The call from our Kurdish contact came late the night before, at around 11pm. The details were sparse, but we were instructed to drive north from the city of Erbil to a rendezvous point where Kurdish peshmerga fighters would meet us. “Your names are on the list of correspondents, so be there well before dawn,” the contact instructed. Three hours later we arrived in the pitch black at a peshmerga base in the region of Nawaran, northeast of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. “What’s wrong with these people? Everyone here is trying to get away from this place and these reporters insist on coming,” joked one young sentry to our driver as we waited for final clearance at a checkpoint. All around us, armed fighters, armoured Humvees and trucks were on the move. Something big was clearly going down.
Around four in the morning a handful of correspondents, myself among them, shuffled bleary-eyed into a tumbledown building surrounded by sandbags for a briefing. “There are many dangers and your safety is our main concern, so please listen to our officers and take care,” said Colonel Dilshad Mawlood, who was helping coordinate the journalists covering the impending operation. The operation, the colonel told us, was to be the biggest military offensive so far in the battle to liberate Mosul from jihadist Daesh fighters – sometime called Islamic State (IS) – who for two years have made the city the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate. That advance at dawn on Thursday, October 20th 2016, from the village of Nawaran and the towns of Bashiqa and Bartella, would mark the most significant military step to date on the long, bloody road to liberate Mosul from the rule of Daesh.
A CITY AT WAR
As I write, this epic struggle is still playing out its bloody endgame in the west of the city. Predictions that it would all be over by April or May of this year have proved unfounded, and the carnage continues. Thousands of civilians remain caught up in the battle, many trapped and used by Daesh as human shields in an effort to stop the advance of Iraqi forces. Those who don’t comply are more often than not executed, as was evident a few weeks ago in the massacre of over 160 civilians gunned down as they tried to flee from neighbourhoods in the west of the city. Across Mosul, both in liberated areas and in those still under siege, there are still dire shortages of food and water. Mosul is no stranger to suffering. I was there back in 2003 and saw it liberated by peshmerga and US special forces following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. I remember well the uncertainty of that period, as jubilant Iraqis chanting anti-Saddam slogans emerged from the Bank of Iraq in Mosul, clutching bundles of Iraqi dinars bearing Saddam’s face that they then tore to shreds. To this day, I can still picture clearly those thousands of banknotes fluttering down Mosul’s streets.
Thousands of civilians remain caught up in the battle, many trapped and used by Daesh as human shields in an effort to stop the advance of Iraqi forces.
It was in August of 2016 that I first returned to cover the latest battle for Mosul, linking up with the Iraqi Army and peshmerga as their advanced inched forward. For days, thick plumes of black smoke had been spiralling upwards and settling into a dense, ominous blanket over the oil town of Qayyara just south of Mosul. “Daesh have set fire to the oil wells. The smoke lets them hide from the coalition warplanes and their bombs,” a masked Iraqi special forces soldier explained to me. That day too the coalition warplanes were busy, the occasional fireball puncturing the curtain of soot-black smoke as another of their bombs erupted with the gory bloom of a direct hit on their targets inside Qayyara. Whenever I watch such an onslaught, it’s hard to conceive of anyone or anything surviving such an inferno. But as I was to find out in the weeks and months that followed, the jihadists of Daesh are, if nothing else, resourceful, tenacious and cunning. For them, war is a no-quarter business; they use any tactic or weapon in confronting their foes.
One August afternoon, with temperatures reaching 52C, I sat talking with three young peshmerga fighters. Assim Ahem, along with his fellow peshmergas Ahmed Mehsin and Yusef Aziz, know all about getting up close to an enemy who are often as elusive as ghosts. “We moved along until we came to a kind of chamber where there were signs that four Daesh had been hiding,” said 25-year-old Ahem, telling me of the time he and his comrades had entered a Daesh tunnel network near the village of Kanash, close to the Gwer Bridge frontline east of Mosul. “Inside we saw their bedrolls, cooking utensils and weapons,” Ahem said, an Egyptian-made Port Said-Akaba submachine gun, looted from the Daesh lair, slung around his neck. It was only on discovering that the tunnel had not actually been vacated by the Daesh fighters that the three peshmerga realised there was a large booby trap bomb rigged to explode, should the tunnel be overrun. They then quickly backed out. The longer I stayed on the Mosul frontline, the more I saw of these tunnel networks, the deployment of snipers, widespread use of IEDs – improvised explosive devices – and the dreaded suicide truck bombers.
Last October, as the battle closed on Mosul nine miles to the east near the town of Bartella, I stood peering into another of the jihadists’ subterranean hideouts. In the gloom, it was just possible to see two bodies wrapped in blankets. These were not the corpses of Daesh fighters but two of Bartella’s predominantly Christian citizens who had been buried there some time ago in the crypt of Mart Shmony Syriac Orthodox Church. The presence of these human remains had not deterred the Daesh fighters from prising up a paving stone on the church floor to gain access to the crypt for use as a bomb shelter. Outside the church, in an adjacent graveyard, stone slabs from tombs had been removed, enabling the graves to be used as makeshift bunkers. A 122mm rocket had been left behind and it stood there yet, abandoned on its improvised launcher. From these tombs, Daesh fighters would briefly surface into the open to fire missiles before ducking back down inside to avoid coalition airstrikes or retaliatory bombardment from Iraqi Army special forces.
The presence of these human remains had not deterred the Daesh fighters from prising up a paving stone on the church floor to gain access to the crypt for use as a bomb shelter.
By the time this fighting was underway, the world seemed at last to have woken up to the Mosul story. As first the east of the city was taken, and the toughest battles began for the west on the other side of the Tigris River, the legacy of the battle was becoming terrifyingly apparent. There are three aspects to this legacy. The first is the humanitarian fallout, allied to the challenge that the city and region will face from the countless IEDs left behind by Daesh. The second concerns questions over what will happen to Daesh itself and the kind of threat it will pose even though ousted from Mosul. Then, finally, there is the question of the future control of Mosul given the tensions that exist between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north. These tensions were heightened recently after the KRG declared that there will be a referendum on Kurdish independence this coming September.
But let’s consider the humanitarian issues first. According to the UN, some 700,000 people have already been displaced during the most intense eight months of the battle for Mosul. The international body warns that another 200,000 people may be forced to flee their homes as Iraqi forces battle to wrest back the last Daesh-held districts. Some US$985 million has been requested to handle the UN humanitarian response for Mosul alone, of which only about a third has been funded. Lise Grand, the UN humanitarian co-coordinator for Iraq, recently summed up the urgency of the situation with her observation that, “The military battle in Mosul isn’t over yet and even when it is, the emergency will continue for months….hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.”
A PLACE OF NO RETURN
Many Mosul residents displaced by the fighting have no intention of returning, so traumatised are they by what they experienced under Daesh rule. Salim and Shaima, along with their seven-month old son Abdu Rahman, were among many people displaced from their homes and insist they will not return even if things appear safe again. Like many, what they had undergone pushed them to near breaking point. What they felt, Salim told me when we met, was more than fear; it was a terror inside them that made their waking hours in Mosul a living hell.
There was no single worst moment, he said, but rather that their entire lives had become one long bad moment. Only the existence of their son gave them the inspiration to hang on and continue. “Daesh would still come to our house and force us to attend the killings otherwise we would be arrested and put in one of their jails,” Salim explained. He recalls one day watching the executioners prepare to throw a man to his death from the top of a building: “I just wanted to rescue him, but I couldn’t, there was nothing we could do,” Salim says shaking his head at the memory. If there is one consolation for Salim and Shaima from their harrowing ordeal, it’s that Abdu Rahman will remember nothing of what the family has gone through. The same cannot be said of his young parents. “We are always thinking about what happened both when awake and in our nightmares when sleeping”, admits Salim. “We cannot wipe out the sight of all those we saw killed in front of own eyes.” Salim and Shaima will not return to their neighbourhood in Mosul. For them, the city they call home will forever be haunted by what they witnessed.
A DEADLY LEGACY
There are other reasons too why many will not return for the foreseeable future. Right now, the gun battles, mortar fire and airstrikes still rage in the west of the city. But those neighbourhoods already liberated by the Iraqi Army have been left infected by a deadly contagion of IEDs deliberately left by the jihadists ahead of their retreat. For groups like Daesh, IEDs are the weapons of choice. In 2015 alone, these easily constructed devices were responsible for killing nearly 18,000 people around the world, immobilising and posing a threat to millions more. Those whose job it is to clear up these indiscriminate weapons say that the task facing them in Mosul is on a scale and level of sophistication rarely seen before. Just to put this into some kind of context, one explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operator working for the UK-based Optima Group, a company comprised mainly of former military ordnance disposal experts, told me of what they had found and had to deal with in the Iraqi town of Ramadi when it was liberated from Daesh in 2016. In the town’s university, more than 3,000 explosive devices and booby traps had to be cleared in an operation that took a full year but was concentrated in very small area. Ramadi and its university are a fraction of the size of Mosul.
The inescapable reality is that nothing in this lethal terrain can be presumed to be benign when it comes to IEDs. A child’s football or doll, teapots, television sets, fridges, chicken coops have all been rigged with explosives, and even dead bodies are sometimes booby-trapped.
When last in Mosul, I was taken by a disposal team from the Optima Group to the pancaked ruins that now sit inside Mosul university campus. Driving toward the campus, we passed a huge crater in the road made only two days before after a Daesh suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt. It was a sharp reminder to both civilians and those tasked with clearing IEDs in places like Mosul’s university grounds, schools, electricity sub-stations and water plants that Daesh may have been pushed back into the west of the city but their cells still operate in the east too. The inescapable reality is that nothing in this lethal terrain can be presumed to be benign when it comes to IEDs. A child’s football or doll, teapots, television sets, fridges, chicken coops have all been rigged with explosives, and even dead bodies are sometimes booby-trapped. Disposal teams have found the most mundane objects set up in this way. Some have motion sensors or are fitted with anti-tilt and anti-tamper mechanisms on them so that those trying to clear or render them safe will themselves activate the explosion. “The main thing is that there are a couple of components to an IED, you have an explosive charge, you have what might be called a switch, a thing that makes it detonate and you have power supply,” explained Doug Napier, one EOD specialist as he showed me a small patch of training ground at the Optima Group compound in which are sunk a variety of mock IEDs of the type he and the team regularly encounter. Among them are plastic jerry cans full of ammonium nitrate and linked to detonators. Some utilise pressure plates, triggered by someone stepping on them, which are sensitive enough to be detonated by a child but big enough to blow up a tank. Then there are crush wires, small stands of wire that resemble a string of Christmas fairy lights but are thinner and coloured to blend in with the earth. Instead of lights though, these have tiny taped circuits that, when stood on, can trigger a blast hundreds of yard away. Crush wires are nearly impossible to see when strewn on the ground in the likes of Mosul’s rubble strewn streets. “The main charge that I’ve seen since being here are primarily improvised explosive, so basically they will take industrial chemicals or the type of stuff you would use on a farm or other non military environments and adapt it into an explosive,” says Napier. However, Daesh also uses repurposed military stock, of which there is an abundance in the region.
Daesh manufacture IEDs on a factory scale. So organised is its production line, it even has its own quality control labels, according to Optima Group’s technical specialist Mark Warburton, another former soldier who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Daesh inventory. Equally knowledgeable, Doug Napier says that he can look at the parts of IEDs and recognise when they have come from the same manufactured stock. Looking ahead, such expertise will be critical in helping Iraq rid itself of this deadly menace. The United Nations body on action against landmines (UNMAS) has estimated that the cost for removing landmines and explosives from Mosul alone will be $50 million, this on top of the same amount for the whole country. Dealing with IEDs is now taking on a new urgency in Iraq but it will be a huge and costly challenge in the years to come.
TOUGH POLITICAL QUESTIONS PUT ON HOLD
As serious as the IED problem is, it is not the only challenge which presents itself as far as Mosul is concerned. From the outset, the battle for Mosul has involved a delicate military and political choreography. Talk of ‘winning’ Mosul back is highly relative. Yes, it is important to free the city from Daesh. Just as critical, however, is whether Iraq’s deeply divided factions can find a sense of unity, solidarity and political cooperation once Daesh in Mosul is dealt with. Should they fail to do so, Iraq could easily be tipped into an all-out civil war. If there has been one fatal flaw in the entire Mosul operation, it lies in the failure to have a cohesive post-liberation agreement in place between the Kurds in Erbil and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. To stand any chance of being effective, such an agreement would need to recognise the rights of other minorities, be they Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and others.
Thus far, the common cause of eliminating Daesh has provided a unifying point to rally around for all those powers with a stake in the outcome of the battle for Mosul. But let’s be under no illusions; everyone from the Baghdad government, various Kurdish parties, Shiite Arab militias, Sunni Arab militias, Iran, the US, other Western countries, Turkey, Syria and other Arab states all have a stake in the outcome of the Mosul operation. And there are many competing agendas. Here in the West, there is also great speculation over how we will deal with Daesh as a terrorist entity without a state. Already there is increasing evidence that the organisation is transforming itself into a long-term insurgency in Iraq and Syria, but also developing into a movement with worldwide reach. Tackling this is important, but so too is focusing our political and diplomatic attention on how we will deal with what follows Mosul. To ignore this issue would invite yet more problems in Iraq and the chance of extremism taking hold again.
If there has been one fatal flaw in the entire Mosul operation, it lies in the failure to have a cohesive post-liberation agreement in place between the Kurds in Erbil and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. To stand any chance of being effective, such an agreement would need to recognise the rights of other minorities, be they Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and others.
Let’s not forget that what is unfolding in Iraq, and the horrors of places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul under Daesh’s heinous rule, was in great part a result of events set in motion by the United Kingdom and United States. The 2003 Iraq War was both ill-conceived and based on a faulty premise. Right now, we must not compound past faults and failings by adopting a posture of weary disinterest and diffidence towards Iraq’s looming internal political problems.
Just before leaving Iraq, I put the question of what might unfold in the wake of Mosul’s liberation to both an Iraqi Army officer and a senior Kurdish politician. “I’m a soldier and all that concerns me is defeating Daesh and I’m happy to have the Kurdish peshmerga alongside us as allies,” the Iraqi officer replied. “But” he added, “the politicians are another thing.” Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is the consummate politician and diplomat. I asked him how confident he was, on a sliding scale of one to ten, that the political situation following Mosul’s liberation would be stable and positive. His answer summed up the concerns of many: “It’s a five” he replied. “It’s fifty fifty.”
David Pratt is a multi-award winning journalist, photographer, broadcaster and editor. As a correspondent, his specialist areas include conflict, humanitarian, security and intelligence issues, especially in the Arab and Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa. He is a Contributing Editor to Cable and at the Herald/Sunday Herald.
Featured photo: Iraqi Special Forces soldier during the advance on Mosul with oil installations blown up by Daesh burning near Qayyarah. © David Pratt, All Rights Reserved