In an abandoned house on the banks of northern Iraq’s Great Zab River, a soldier known as Ahmed the Bullet giggles like a child as he waves me over to see the secret cache of photos that he keeps on his phone. The burly special forces veteran has been collecting images of death throughout the long war with ISIS, which has now reached the outskirts of the militant capital of Mosul. It’s a warm afternoon in October, and soldiers from Ahmed’s elite battalion are preparing to lead the offensive for the city. Wearing a T-shirt that says “American Sniper” and a backwards baseball cap, he takes a thick finger and swipes through pictures of dead and wounded comrades.
On the dirt roads outside, soldiers shout over the rumble of Humvees as they turn an empty village near the front lines into a forward operating base. Over the last two years, as they’ve pushed back the ISIS caliphate, the process has become routine: Check houses for bombs; clear them of broken glass; rig them for electric; carry over water, rice, generators. Then move on and do it all again, a little wearier and often with fewer men.
They are Iraq’s best soldiers — the lead battalion of the three brigades of special forces that are heralded as the “Golden Division,” the almost-invincible killers of ISIS — and they know the final battle in Mosul rests on their shoulders. Passersby had honked their horns and cheered when, two days earlier, they rolled north in a convoy from Baghdad. The highway shook as flatbed trucks hauled their bullet-marked Humvees toward the front lines, each painted in the trademark black of the special forces, with the black-clad soldiers perched on top like gargoyles as Iraqi flags thrashed in the headwind. The battalion’s commander, Maj. Salam al-Obaidi, 38, guided the convoy from a white SUV emblazoned with a screaming eagle. A compact and fiery man with a buzz cut and trim mustache, his exploits against ISIS have made him one of the most recognizable soldiers in Iraq. When he rolled through checkpoints, Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen came up to his window to shake his hand and take selfies.
The photos in Ahmed’s phone show the darker side of the story. In one, Maj. Salam is lying blood-smeared and unconscious in his Humvee at the end of the last big offensive, in the sprawling province of Anbar, his skull fractured and shrapnel dug into his head, shoulder, and chest. His vehicle was hit by an ISIS anti-tank rocket, and he barely escaped with his life.
Ahmed has more photos. They show the corpses of special forces soldiers killed in various battles with ISIS. Military intelligence deleted them from his phone, he says, but he found software to bring them back. The scale of the casualties this elite group of soldiers is taking is a closely guarded secret, as generals worry that revealing their extent could crush morale. Iraq needs a myth to rally behind — heroes to give a broken country hope — and these soldiers are it. But winning the war on ISIS also threatens to wipe them out.
Ahmed is a gunner who spends the long days during Maj. Salam’s assaults perched in the turret of his Humvee, laying down suppressive fire. Like many of his colleagues, he spent years during the Iraq War fighting alongside the US troops who trained him. In retaliation, members of a Shiite militia kidnapped him and, using a knife, tried to peel off his face, then shot him and left him for dead on a roadside. A scar from that attack runs along his scalp line. Other wounds are harder to see. Still holding his phone, he lets out a scattershot burst of more recent war stories, like the photos violent and strange. In one, he chases a jihadi down a war-torn street as the man’s severed arm flaps at his side. In another, a sniper’s bullet smacks the reinforced glass of his turret a few inches from his face, and he unravels for a moment, firing at the home where the shot seemed to originate. “I went crazy on the house and destroyed it,” he says. “I didn’t even care if there was a family inside.”
He puts away the photos. “I’m not supposed to show these to anyone,” he says.
Eleven days later, Maj. Salam moves his forces across the river to begin his assault into Mosul. It will be a battle far longer and bloodier than anyone anticipates, but as he gathers his deputies for a pre-dawn briefing, he seems excited to start. “I want space for the tanks,” he says, looking up with alert brown eyes at the dozen men standing around him.
Rather than standing over his men and barking orders, he reclines cat-like on the floor of a rural home and calmly lays out the battle plan, a touch of gray in his buzz cut and jagged scar along one side of his head.
An airstrike hits in the darkness outside, pulsing the ear drums of the soldiers and rattling the windows in their frames.
Kurdish forces have rolled ISIS lines back to Mosul’s outskirts to set the stage for Maj. Salam to infiltrate the city. “We are not in a rush. We’re not in a rush at all,” he says. “The most important thing is no casualties.”
On the porch, Ahmed the Bullet pulls on a pair of fingerless gloves and begins to strut and banter with his colleagues, getting loose before a day behind the .50-caliber machine gun in his roof-top turret.
Maj. Salam walks over to me. Though he stands just 5-foot-8, his natural intensity seems all the more powerful for being concentrated in his compact frame. “They will send women at the convoy, they will send little kids at the convoy,” he says. “No matter what, you cannot leave the Humvee. Okay?”
The battalion’s US-made Humvees shudder and snort as the drivers switch on their ignitions. As they gather around them, some soldiers pull on ski masks with the skull face of the Punisher, a comic-book vigilante. One wraps his head in a black-and-white keffiyeh. They step up into the vehicles in crews of four and five and set off as the sun begins to rise.
I sit in the back seat of a Humvee near the center of the convoy. Ammo boxes are stacked beside me, and around them is a clutter: assault rifles, gas masks, a rocket-propelled grenade, a case of water bottles, a cardboard box of potato chips. The stocky legs of the gunner, Abbas, a gruff twenty-something from Baghdad, hang down from the turret as he balances on two more ammo boxes. He turns a hand crank to rotate the turret, scanning the horizon and yelling down to the driver. A wiry soldier sits behind the passenger’s seat and keeps watch out his window, a textbook-sized slab of bulletproof glass.
The Humvees creep in a long column through the dirt of abandoned farm fields, pausing as sappers in a mine-resistant truck search for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. They detonate them in controlled explosions that push up geysers of earth.
His voice crackling on the radio, Maj. Salam commands the convoy from the first Humvee’s passenger seat. His aim is to capture a village called Topzawa, which sits astride Highway 1, the road that offers him a straight shot into Mosul’s eastern gate.
As our Humvee bounces along, the driver tells me he idolized the special forces growing up during the US war — they were the baddest Iraqi soldiers around, storming into hostile neighborhoods to kill and capture militia leaders and terrorists. But that’s not the kind of war they’re waging today. In June 2014, when ISIS captured Mosul, the regular Iraqi army turned and fled, and as the militants surged toward Baghdad, the special forces were rushed in to stop the bleeding. Rebuilt by the US military, Iraq’s army has since regrouped, but the special forces are still the men who US and Iraqi generals trust to lead the charge. “This is not our job, street fights. We entered into a dirty kind of war,” the driver says.
On the horizon lie the low-slung buildings of Topzawa, encircled by a concrete wall. The ISIS militants defending the village catch sight of the convoy and open fire with mounted machine guns, dirt puffing up around the Humvee. The bullets make a chirping sound as they fly around the turret, the gunners aiming for Abbas’s head. “Be careful, Abbas!” the driver yells as bullets smack the Humvee’s armor. Abbas lets loose with his machine gun, each shot sounding like a car crash inside the vehicle’s metal shell.
On the radio, Maj. Salam tells the drivers to move forward, and they advance amid the blasts of ISIS mortar bombs and RPGs. Abbas is firing his weapon madly now, the gun dripping oil as cascades of bullet casings jangle down into the Humvee, all scorching to the touch. “Abbas! Be conservative with your ammunition!” the driver screams above the din. “We haven’t even gotten into the village yet!”
An airstrike hits so close that everyone jumps. The Humvees pick up speed, each isolated in a cloud of dust. Fifty yards from the wall, they break their column and fan out. Abbas skids on his ammo boxes as the Humvee bumps and rocks. “Abbas! Abbas!” the driver screams as more bullet casings flood the floor. Taking the lead from the soldier next to me, I periodically gather the spent casings, throw open my window hatch, dump them out, and slam it shut again. One minute, the driver is blaring music on his phone, barely audible above the gunshots. The next he is on a phone call, cackling.
Sparks fly from the second story of a school where ISIS has positioned one of its heavy guns. Dust surges inside the Humvee as a mortar or RPG explodes in front of it, and the ground seems to ripple. There is an ear-splitting eruption as the Iraqis fire from a tank. “They are firing at you — be careful!” the driver shouts to Abbas, whose phone has been ringing nonstop. Finally, during a brief lull, he stops to answer it. A worried aunt is on the line. Like many of the battalion’s soldiers, Abbas has been lying to his family about the extent of the danger, but his aunt has seen reports of the increasingly deadly Mosul battle on TV. Ducking down into the Humvee, Abbas tells her he is miles from any fighting. “I swear to God, nothing is going on,” he says. “Everything is okay.”
A soldier in a baseball cap steps from the Humvee beside us and, with his assault rifle, sprays bullets toward the town. Still fretting about ammo, the driver sees that a box of it has fallen from another vehicle and makes a frantic dash out to get it. On the radio, Maj. Salam orders the men forward again, and the driver pulls up to the village’s outer walls. Terrified civilians, trapped in the crossfire, are huddled in the streets and houses beyond. Maj. Salam’s Humvee rolls up alongside us, and his voice crackles over a PA system with a robotic drone. “We don’t have any problem with you guys. Put a white flag on your house, and you’re going to be safe,” he says. As civilians inch out from their homes, an airstrike hits a building behind them with a crack like thunder, shaking the ground. Sirens blare from Maj. Salam’s PA. “The plane is not going to hit you,” he says. “Come toward me.”
Families begin to clamber over the wall. The soldiers step out of their Humvees, their weapons drawn. They have been attacked before by ISIS members hiding among such crowds, and their faces seem pained as they repress their urge to help. They order each man to lift his shirt and spin, to see if he’s strapped with bombs. Two elderly women emerge, struggling to carry a man between them. As the soldiers watch, there is a long moment of horrified silence. Then one throws down his rifle and runs over to help.
When the wave of civilians abates, a bulldozer breaks a hole in the wall. The soldiers rush out from their Humvees to secure each house. On one street, a shirtless man cowers on his knees, his hands bound by zip-ties. The soldiers standing over him say they caught him running, and one holds up a suicide belt that they found nearby. The man, with a childish whine, insists he’s not an ISIS fighter. “Just shut the fuck up and keep your head down,” a soldier replies. After losing so many of their comrades to ISIS — and seeing so many civilians killed in terror attacks — the soldiers seem to struggle with a desire for revenge. One ashes a cigarette on the man, another wipes it off. One gives him a cigarette to smoke, another smacks him on the forehead, and another mocks him for crying. A lieutenant finally pulls him from the crowd, reaching for his pistol. Then he pauses and puts the man in a Humvee instead.
At night, with the village secured and its residents emptied into temporary camps, Maj. Salam commandeers a beautiful villa, well-appointed and sparkling clean. “Sunni family” is written in graffiti on an outer wall, likely put there in hopes of staving off trouble from ISIS, which preaches an extremist version of the Sunni branch of Islam. Civilian homes have often become military outposts in a war waged block by block. Maj. Salam travels with a flat-screen TV and a satellite dish that he uses to get cable and internet. While his men rig the house for electric, he stretches out on the porch.
Around 100,000 soldiers are massed for what will be one of the largest urban battles since World War II — including Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribesmen, and troops from the Iraqi army, interior ministry, and federal police. Among them, dressed like local forces, are Western commandos, while uniformed US soldiers coordinate battles, fire artillery, and oversee airstrikes from bases behind the front lines. Iran-backed Shiite militia have muscled their way into the equation too and are massed just west of Mosul, threatening to inflame tensions in the Sunni-majority city. Despite this array of forces, the battle's success depends on Maj. Salam and his soldiers. They know the world is watching. When Mosul falls, it will bring an end to the cross-border caliphate that has defined ISIS, whose suicide bombers are still ripping through Baghdad. In the US, ISIS terrorism is helping to shape a contentious presidential campaign, with Donald Trump claiming he’s the only person who can stop it.
Maj. Salam cracks a Red Bull, his favorite drink. The ISIS suspect is brought to him and beckoned to sit. Maj. Salam asks some questions with an easy air, and the man, a simple-spoken native of the village, admits he was working with ISIS. Feeling benevolent, Maj. Salam decides to set him free so long as he can get the village’s generator running. I ask how the battle went, and he says he’s happy that his men suffered no casualties — something he knows won’t last. “We moved slow, but there wasn’t any bleeding,” he says.
Salam’s first encounter with the US military came in the spring of 2003. A recent graduate from military college, he was standing on a corner in a suddenly war-torn Baghdad when he saw a modified US tank rumbling toward him, massive and green, with a mine plow with jagged metal teeth mounted to its front plate. “I was shocked,” he recalls a few nights after taking Topzawa, sitting outside the latest house he has commandeered. “I really admired the power of the American army, which I considered to be liberators.”
His father was a member of the Iraqi air force, and many family members had served under Saddam Hussein. They were part of the country’s Shiite Muslim religious majority, which was repressed by Hussein’s Sunni-led regime. But like many Iraqis, the family saw the military as a way to get by under a dictator who seemed as enduring as the summer heat. When Hussein fell, Salam saw the chance to build a new Iraq, and before long he was training under US soldiers for the new National Guard.
One day during training, a hulking American, the biggest man he’d ever seen, pulled him aside. “Do you want to do something special?” he asked.
Following the American’s instructions, he joined a crowd of recruits outside one of Hussein’s old palaces in Baghdad. A cadre of US troops greeted them at the palace gate but offered no details except that the training program would be long and hard. “Here is a door,” one of them said, motioning to the palace gate. “If you’re serious, enter. If not, go home.”
Most of the recruits turned and left, but Salam kept his eyes on the gate. “All I wanted was to go through it,” he says. “It was a new life.”
He remembers some of the dictator’s exotic animals still roaming the grounds when he entered the palace. The training began against the backdrop of emergency. The occupation of Iraq was descending into chaos, with Shiite militia ambushing US patrols and Sunni terrorists massacring civilians in suicide attacks. The hunt was on for the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as he laid the foundation for a brutal new al-Qaeda branch, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would later give birth to ISIS. As US soldiers combed through hostile neighborhoods in search of suspects, it was clear they would need local help.
The Americans at the palace were from the US Army’s Special Forces, which had conducted clandestine warfare and built up local commando units from Vietnam to Afghanistan. They put the Iraqis through a grueling physical and mental regimen. Anyone who questioned them risked being dismissed on the spot. Salam remembers that for Christmas, the Americans gave the Iraqis a tree decorated with condoms and women’s underpants.
After two and a half weeks of training at the palace, a pared-down group was flown to Jordan; it was the first time Salam had left Iraq. They trained for three more months under Jordanian special forces and elite US troops with names like Mark the Sniper, Cedric, and Dave. It was there where Salam learned they were being molded into a counterterrorism force that would specialize in hostage rescues and high-value raids — an Iraqi version of US commando units like the Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, which carried out the Osama bin Laden raid. He learned to fire pistols and M4 rifles, to break into houses, to rope-rappel from helicopters, to kick down doors. At the end of training, he was given the role of breacher, and the newly minted commandos were flown back to Baghdad.
They were formed into a battalion called the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force, or ICTF. It was merged with a US-trained light infantry unit to form the backbone of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, or ISOF, which over time would expand to its current size of three brigades. (Officially, the ICTF is now called the 2nd Battalion, 1st ISOF Brigade, but its soldiers still refer to themselves as the ICTF.) The special forces quickly gained a reputation among their US allies as the most reliable soldiers in Iraq. Lt. Harbi Abid, 50, a muscle-bound veteran who climbed the ranks with Salam, still spoke with warmth about his old US partners when I met him on a front line near Mosul one day. “You have their back and they have yours. If a bullet comes, it’s not going to make any distinction,” he said. “With the Americans, I fought al-Qaeda, I fought the militia, I fought the people who broke the law. We were all under death threats. We were the most hated people in Iraq.”
The partnership came at great risk to the Iraqis. Harbi, like many of his comrades, including Salam, was forced to live at a US base when al-Qaeda and militia fighters began targeting ISOF soldiers and their families at their homes. Al-Qaeda killed his brother. “I’m not the only one,” he said. “People had their families executed because of their work.”
Each man carries his scars in a different way. Most days, Ahmed the Bullet is one of the battalion’s most energetic soldiers, exuberant and quick with a joke. He talks optimistically about a post-war life with his wife and two young sons. At other times he is downbeat and lost in a fog. One night, as I try to sleep in a home on the front lines, I hear a ruckus outside my bedroom and rush out to find Ahmed waking from a fitful sleep atop a pile of junk. He puts on his headlamp and wanders past as if he can’t see me.
In early November, Maj. Salam and his men become the first Iraqi soldiers in more than two years to step foot in Mosul’s city limits when they fight their way into a neighborhood called Gogjali. ISIS responds with a vicious counterattack, deploying waves of suicide car bombs, the vehicles outfitted with armored shells, the pilots seemingly in endless supply. Maj. Salam is nearly killed in one attack; the explosion knocks him to the ground and leaves three of his best soldiers dead, including a close friend.
The special forces are on their own in the city. The Iraqi army and federal police have both gotten bogged down along the other fronts of the offensive — allowing ISIS to concentrate its defenses on the invaders. On the night of November 6, the house in Gogjali where Maj. Salam and his men have hunkered down shakes from nearby explosions. Meanwhile, in the States, news of the Iraqi advance has already faded as a fresh controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails is helping Trump climb in the polls.
The next morning, another car bomb sends broken glass flying. Outside, displaced residents pour down the street — families in a daze, carrying suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with clothes. Outgoing artillery whooshes above their heads. There is a loud boom, and a little girl in a pink winter hat shrieks as she runs down the street beside her mother, covering her ears. Teens walk by in skinny jeans and sweatpants. A little boy skips down the road as if he were on his way to school. A woman in a black headscarf and oversized sunglasses wouldn’t look out of place shopping in Istanbul or New York. Mosul was Iraq’s second-largest city before ISIS, a commercial center with a renowned university and famous cuisine. US officials believe up to 1 million civilians are trapped in the city. The Iraqi government has urged them not to flee, hoping this will prove safer, and make it easier to manage the human tide. For the special forces soldiers on the ground, the civilians are a constant concern — and as they fight through neighborhoods, the men worry about killing or wounding the people they’re trying to save. A woman in a black abaya sprints down the road as another explosion sounds. A family pushes an elderly woman, unconscious and suffering from shrapnel wounds, in a donkey cart. The crowds keep coming, some men carrying white flags on their shoulders, people stopping to ask Iraqi soldiers for cigarettes, water, food. “Put your flag down, you don’t need it anymore,” one soldier says.
“The fighting is all over our houses,” a man tells me.
“My neighbor lost his arm. He is walking over here with no arm,” an older woman says.
“They’re killing kids! They’re killing families! They’re doing everything!” a man named Mahmoud Hamid says, speaking about ISIS, when I approach him on the street. He is with his wife and two small sons, carrying a single suitcase. A stocky former civil servant in his thirties, he wears a polo shirt and horn-rimmed glasses. He asks me if there are mortars falling here. The two boys appear shell-shocked. “They’re terrified,” he says. “Psychologically they’re not doing well.”
He walks up to some soldiers who are loading the displaced onto cattle trucks bound for the camps and pulls his family up into one of them. I notice a small man wearing jogging pants and a black ski mask in the crowd. He tells me he has been recruited to inform the soldiers who among his neighbors is with ISIS. Suspects are tied with blindfolds and sent away. I ask why he’s wearing the mask. “Because ISIS has sleeper cells,” he says.
An officer yells at him: “Don’t talk to the journalist. Just get in the truck and go.”
In the evening, Maj. Salam returns from the front and tells me the convoy was hunted throughout the day by suicide car bombs. One stalked them for hours through the streets: “We were like the rat and he was like the cat.”
He decides the battalion should move deeper into the city. The men quickly pack up the equipment, food, generator, and satellite dish, and as dusk falls, the Humvees depart, rolling past the seemingly endless procession of civilians. He sets up base in another impressive house, which stands out from its neighbors along a dirt road. Inside, it is pristine, with new appliances, comfortable couches, and big speakers stacked around a large TV. An older officer walks around with his phone, taking photos to send his wife. I run upstairs and throw my bags into a windowless room. Suddenly there is a hasty order to fall back, and everyone runs back to the Humvees. “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” a soldier tells me. Maj. Salam had a bad feeling — something wasn’t right. As the battalion pulls away, men and boys appear at the entrances to nearby houses, staring at the Humvees as they return to Gogjali.
The next night, as voters in the US are going to the polls, Maj. Salam makes his new base in house deeper in the city. The roof has views of the Tigris River and the buildings that line its eastern bank. A frying pan of half-cooked lamb sits on a stovetop, dirty diapers fill a small garbage pail, and lingerie hangs from a clothesline. A soldier walks over to a cage of chirping birds and pours in bird feed. In the master bedroom, Maj. Salam is sitting on a king-sized bed, hunched over his iPad, swiping through photos. He pauses on one of the friends who had been killed days earlier, Haider Fakhri, a gentle giant of an officer who was always at his side.
The two men had been standing on a newly cleared street when an explosive-laden truck came barreling toward them. The picture, taken by a French photographer, shows a look of determination on Haider’s face as he draws his handgun and charges toward the vehicle in a desperate effort to stop it. Another officer follows closely behind him. After the explosion, when Maj. Salam pulled himself up from the ground, he found Haider, the second officer, and another soldier dead.
Maj. Salam insists that his friend’s death has no more meaning to him than all the others the battalion has suffered. “Leadership to me is being close to your men. The problem is I am close with all of them,” he says. “I eat with all of them, hang out with all of them. Haider is like Conan, Conan is like Amjad, Amjad is like Bis Bis. They are all the same for me. Maybe I was closer with Haider, but it’s the same.”
ICTF cannons thump methodically outside as Maj. Salam takes another look at the photo. “Those are the guys, just seconds before they leave,” he says, his voice softening. “Look at their faces, how they’re looking for the car bomb. They are true symbols of selflessness.”
He says it’s clear ISIS has planned its toughest resistance for the more densely populated parts of the city, where its fighters can take cover among civilians and exploit the narrow alleys and streets. I ask him what he tells his men to keep them going through such a long and bloody war, which has seen Iraq threaten to fracture around them as they wage it — the Kurds pushing for independence, the Shiite militia trying to drive the country closer to Iran. “I tell my soldiers, you are not fighting for Iraq. You are not fighting for a flag. You are fighting for your family. And we move up from there,” he says. “If you are fighting for your family, you will fight for your neighbors, you will fight for your district. Being patriots doesn’t start from the top, it starts from your family. The way we feel is that we are preventing the crisis from reaching our families. To reach our neighbors. To reach our city. To reach our province. And that is what makes Iraq in the end.”
Mortars begin to hit near the base when the sun comes up the next morning. Back in the US, which is seven hours behind, it is just past 11 p.m., and Trump’s election victory is becoming clear. After tracking the results on my phone using the shaky Wi-Fi from Maj. Salam’s satellite, I take a Humvee back to a three-story house in Gogjali. Up on the roof, a secretive team of soldiers is calling in US airstrikes. The team leader, a 35-year-old colonel named Arkan, is a graduate of the United States Army Ranger School and has received elite military training at bases across the States. He speaks with an American accent and, with his wraparound sunglasses and mustache, reminds me of Goose from Top Gun. He shoots me a blank look when I tell him that Trump has won, thinking I’m joking. “That’s going to be like Hurricane Katrina hitting all 50 states,” he finally says.
Arkan’s call sign is Archangel, and he has the authority to approve strikes for US and coalition drones and jets, a responsibility usually reserved for Western special forces. Around him on the roof, which is enclosed by 5-foot concrete walls, Iraqi officers plot coordinates and man radios. American voices crackle as two US choppers hover overhead and a drone and fighter jet patrol the sky. Gunshots and explosions sound in the distance, where Maj. Salam is leading his convoy into an ISIS-held neighborhood. At around 11 a.m., he gets on the radio to tell Arkan that an explosive-laden dump truck is stalking the convoy. Arkan walks over to a map, finds the location, and calls it into officers at an operations center in Baghdad. Before a strike can take it out, the dump truck makes a dash for the convoy, which opens fire on it. They destroy the truck before it reaches them, but there’s no time to celebrate. Within minutes, Maj. Salam is on the radio again with word that another truck bomb is heading his way. Arkan immediately requests another airstrike. “ASAP. ASAP, baby. I just need it right now,” he says.
Another explosion erupts in the distance. The normally unflappable Arkan, who hasn’t flinched all morning, jumps up from his chair and looks out in the direction of the convoy, bracing for news of more deaths. But Maj. Salam radios to say that everyone is fine.
The next night, I visit Arkan at his rear base, where I have dinner with two French intelligence officers who are embedded with his unit. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we eat rice and lamb and discuss the election result. One of the officers, a tall, pale man who has tried to blend in by wearing an Iraqi uniform and mustache, says: “They have elected a soap star for US president. In America, really anything is possible.”
Arkan shares a room with the deputy brigade commander, Gen. Haider Fadhil, a soft-spoken 41-year-old who is considered one of Iraq’s brightest officers. After so much time bunking together, the two seem like college roommates as they relax in their tracksuits.
Haider recounts the difficult years the special forces have faced since 2011, when the Obama administration pulled US troops from the country, bringing the Iraq War to an end. It had seemed like AQI was on the back foot then, and the special forces were able to focus on hunting terrorists. But with the Americans gone, Iraq descended further into sectarianism, with then–prime minister Nouri al-Maliki working to purge the government and security forces of Sunnis. As the country splintered, the regular army and police started losing territory to AQI’s offshoot, ISIS. First the militants began taking parts of Anbar Province in early 2o14, and then came Mosul.
The special forces were forced to fill the void left by the army’s retreat. They found themselves fighting like infantry soldiers. No longer able to practice the kind of pre-mission intelligence and planning they had been trained to carry out, fighters were dying by the dozen. “Back then we were not used to city fights. We were trained to do special operations,” Haider says. “We lost a lot of good fighters, fighters the Americans had trained and invested a lot in.”
The turning point came in May 2015, when ISOF was forced to retreat from the last sliver of territory it held in Anbar’s capital, Ramadi. Iraqi and US military planners took the opportunity to regroup. They spent two months revising their strategy; they would focus on retaking territory slowly and methodically — grabbing a small piece, isolating it, and then pushing on. Armed with better weapons and improved communications, they retook Ramadi in January 2016 and from there spearheaded the liberation of the rest of Anbar before moving on to Mosul. Gen. Haider won’t say how many men the special forces have lost to ISIS. “Our soldiers are tired,” he says. “It’s been a long time. They’ve fought in every spot in the country.”
Arkan says that over the hundreds of missions his elite team of commandos carried out during the Iraq War, they suffered very few casualties. “My old boys they were good,” he says. “We literally had a zero casualty rate. We had more killed in action because of accidents than actually in a gunfight.”
I ask how many are still alive after three years fighting ISIS, and he pauses. “Pretty much I have lost every single best friend that I have into this war,” he says.
Ahmed the Bullet dies in mid-December. He is sitting in the turret of his Humvee on a street in Mosul, keeping guard as his comrades clear houses. A car bomb suddenly emerges and is bearing down on the men before they have time to react. “You guys run,” Ahmed says on the radio. All he can do is open up fire one last time, his bullets bouncing off the vehicle’s armor as it speeds closer. The explosion is so powerful that afterward, Ahmed’s friends can’t find a trace of him.
As the battalion pushes on, the death toll mounts. A beloved sergeant named Mustafa al-Kurdi is killed by another car bomb. A sniper kills a new ICTF member named Rahim and then an 11-year veteran named Mohamed who rushes out to save him.
Iraqi forces announce control of the eastern half of the city on January 18. Not long after, with the ICTF regrouping in Baghdad, I drive through liberated neighborhoods in a Humvee with two soldiers from another special forces unit that has remained in Mosul to keep the peace. The Humvee passes by markets that are returning to life, along with bombed-out buildings and upturned roads, the city caught between war and recovery. Some civilians clear rubble with shovels while others paint. There are occasional explosions as ISIS drops grenades from jerry-rigged drones, a tactic they have started to use with increasing frequency. They are flying them over the river from their last stronghold west of the Tigris.
The soldiers expect western Mosul to be the hardest fight yet. Its neighborhoods are densely packed, and some remain sympathetic to ISIS. With nowhere left to run, the militants are preparing to make their last stand. The soldier in the Humvee’s passenger seat, a grizzled man with a bushy mustache, tells me the casualties in his unit aren’t being replaced. Instead, soldiers are going without rest. Of the 350 soldiers the battalion had at the start of the war with ISIS, he says, now only some 150 remain. Many have been injured and returned to battle. “I was wounded three times — my stomach, my head, and my leg,” he says, and then points to the driver. “This guy was wounded twice.”
The main road is full of civilian vehicles, and we get stuck in traffic. The driver points out proudly that the locals are paying his hulking Humvee little mind, weaving around him, cutting him off. “They’re not afraid of us,” he says. A billboard thanks the special forces for driving ISIS from the area. Mosul is mostly Sunni, and these elite soldiers are mostly Shiite, but they have earned a trust with the city’s residents. It's something that will feel increasingly rare as the offensive drags on and other Iraqi forces, including some that have been infiltrated by Shiite militia, face mounting evidence of abuses, including torture, sexual violence, and rape.
Between trips to Mosul, I call David M. Witty, a retired Green Beret who trained the special forces during the Iraq War, and find him deeply concerned. He has been exhaustively tracking their fate during the offensive — filtering out his research on his Twitter feed — and says their casualty rates seem to be skyrocketing. “What Iraq is missing is infantry to do this dirty work. ISOF are being used in that role now, and it’s got to be bleeding them dry,” he says. “When a very elite unit like that takes those kinds of losses — you know some of those guys have been training with the US since 2003 — they can’t really be replaced. And they’re the ones that need to secure the peace.”
When ISIS finally loses all of its territory in Iraq, its fighters will blend back in with the civilian population and renew their focus on terrorism, says Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who advised the US military during the Iraq War. This would make the original mission of the special forces more important than ever, he adds — but to carry it out, after all the losses they have taken, they would need to be rebuilt. This would require Washington and Baghdad to cooperate on an expansive new effort — along with a major US commitment of trainers and funds. Ideally, America would also continue working to build up the rest of the security forces so ISOF can focus on counterterrorism. Knights has been in discussions with the Trump administration on its post-Mosul plans and believes this is one of the most important foreign policy questions it will face. He points out that Trump’s national security team is dominated by Iraq War veterans — such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly — who share the president’s suspicion of Iran. “The challenge for these veterans is to overcome the basic skepticism of the president himself over the value of pouring more US blood and treasure into Iraq,” he says. “But the generals are slowly winning this fight, in part because supporting the Iraqi security forces is not just about stopping ISIS from coming back — it’s also about limiting Iran’s influence in Iraq.”
After the US left Iraq in 2011, the special forces risked sliding into the same sectarian abyss that now threatens the country. In carrying out his political purges, Maliki often used them behind the scenes, arresting targets and, according to some accusations, even killing them. “They started to be involved in political scandals,” Knights says. “Part of the special forces ethos in Iraq was that you’re going to do what the top guy wants. You’re his chosen people — you get the best equipment, housing, and pay — and you don’t get that for nothing. But in this war [with ISIS] they have rebuilt their reputation.”
The narrative that the special forces have now built as the saviors of the country gives them the chance to be a unifying force after Mosul, Knights says. But there is another story being pushed in Iraq, by the Shiite militia and their allies, who claim they’re the ones who own the future of the country. In the national emergency that followed Mosul’s fall in the summer of 2014, the militia rose up to help stop ISIS’s advance and have played a key role in battles across the country. Though their involvement in Mosul has been limited, they are keen to paint themselves as the heroes of the battle there, and they are backed by a powerful propaganda machine. “The key point is that out of this war there are only two forces that the Iraqi people trust. A significant portion of the country believe the [Shiite militia] stepped up when the army was down. And then there was ISOF,” Knights says. “That offers us a clear policy choice as Americans. If we don’t want Iran and the militia to take over, then we’ve got to support the other force that Iraqis have rallied behind. We’ve got one throw of the dice left.”
A depleted ICTF prepares its assault into western Mosul in late February. On top of all the casualties they have taken, they are also missing the leader who has taken them this far. Maj. Salam has been recalled from Mosul and sent with his wife and son to Texas, where he is beginning a two-year officers’ training program at Lackland Air Force Base. The men seem to have lost some of their intensity without him. His replacement, Maj. Ali Taleb, 33, is a popular and respected ICTF veteran who is in many ways Maj. Salam's opposite — reserved but quietly confident. Sitting on the floor at his rear base, the night before the battalion begins its attack, he tells me, in his matter-of-fact tone, that he expects ISIS’s resistance to be fierce: “They are trapped, and they have no choice but to fight.”
ISIS drones swarm overhead as the battalion’s convoy pushes into the outskirts of western Mosul the next morning. One after another they drop grenades, wreaking havoc as soldiers fire their weapons wildly into the sky. From one of the Humvees, I watch as the battalion’s portly cook makes his lunch rounds in an armored truck, driving up and down the convoy to deliver Styrofoam boxes of food. The drones track him, dropping grenades as soldiers gather to collect the boxes. They are remotely piloted by militants who weave in and out of civilian neighborhoods on motorbikes to take cover from airstrikes. ISIS also uses the video feeds on the drones to coordinate mortars and car bombs. On the front lines, its fighters are standing their ground, and soldiers at the head of the convoy can hear them shouting, “Allahu Akbar.”
The next day, I join three of the battalion’s most seasoned soldiers in the convoy’s lead Humvee. The driver is Ibrahim Abu Hamra, 33, a gregarious man with orange hair, pale skin, and a thick belly who goes by the nickname “Red.” Mustafa al-Zerjawi, a new husband and father, mans the turret, while Mohamed al-Khabouri, a balding 31-year-old sergeant with a wife and daughter at home, readies boxes of ammo. These men are grinders, always up front and fighting — and they hide the true nature of their work from their families. Ibrahim's wife and kids think he has a desk job. “I tell a lot of lies,” he says.
He inches forward on a seemingly abandoned street. The only vehicles in front of him are a tank and an armored bulldozer. Within minutes, bullets whiz around the Humvee as ISIS militants open fire from concealed positions in the buildings ahead. Mustafa returns fire in bursts. Mortars and RPGs begin to explode around the Humvee, hitting close by. There is a sudden eruption outside Mohamed’s window on the passenger’s side — an ISIS fighter has scored a direct hit with an anti-tank missile on the lead vehicle of a second convoy, killing all four soldiers inside. The Humvees near the destroyed vehicle back up hurriedly as it is engulfed in flames. A group of soldiers tries to advance on foot to pull out the bodies, but ISIS hits them with a mortar round. When the dust clears, a soldier lies on the ground, waving for help.
Ibrahim drives slowly forward as Mustafa fires at nearby rooftops, probing for ISIS positions. The street ahead is empty except for some parked cars and a water tanker leaking from bullet holes. Two civilians, one waving a white flag, run out of a house whose second story is on fire, only to duck back inside.
At the far end of the street, an ISIS militant wearing fatigues steps out from behind a building. On his shoulder rests a long green tube that looks like an anti-tank rocket launcher. Mustafa unleashes his machine gun, and the man ducks back into cover. Long minutes pass as Mustafa and the other gunners continue to pound the area where he had been spotted. Then an airstrike hits there, and a building collapses into rubble. As the convoy creeps deeper down the streets, someone says on the radio: “There are civilians in the area. Be careful with your fire.”
In front of Ibrahim’s Humvee, the armored bulldozer pushes up dirt barricades at the end of each block to keep car bombs from approaching. The tank’s cannon scans the area as the crew searches for any that might get through. The ISIS drones continue to buzz overhead, watching the convoy and dropping grenades. One hits with a deafening crash onto the roof of the Humvee, and there is a loud hissing sound as if one of the massive tires starts deflating.
There is a pause in the fighting. Ibrahim parks the Humvee across the entrance to the next block the battalion plans to infiltrate. Mohamed peers out his window, looking down it. Suddenly, he jumps up in his seat, shouting, “Car bomb! Car bomb!”
Ibrahim can’t see it. “Where?” he asks, flipping the ignition and shifting the Humvee into gear.
“Here!” Mohamed shouts. “Right here!”
Out the window, I can see the car approaching, a boxy shell of reinforced metal painted in a gleaming, spaceship white, its windshield covered with a rectangle of black armor. It is barely 20 yards away, past the cannon of the tank, and heading toward us. The Humvee jolts awkwardly as Ibrahim tries to speed forward on its flattened tires. Just ahead, one of the dirt berms the bulldozer had pushed up to protect us from car bombs is now trapping us, and as Ibrahim desperately guns the Humvee up it, we get stuck on top of it. He pounds the gas, and the tires spin.
A violent shock wave throws everyone forward as the car bomb detonates, showering the Humvee with shrapnel. The soldiers look up at one another, surprised to be alive. Blood drips out of Ibrahim’s right ear. They later learn that the car had become stuck somehow on the shovel of the bulldozer, exploding just far enough away not to kill anyone.
The next day, Ibrahim stays at the base, but Mohamed and Mustafa head back to the front lines in their patched-up Humvee. In the afternoon, they return in a tow truck dragging the vehicle, which is crumpled like a paper cup. Mohamed tells me that, once again, a car bomb had come straight at them. When they tried to get away, the driver trailed them for blocks, ignoring other ISOF vehicles as it pursued them. They hit a barricade, and the two men rolled out just before the bomb hit. Covered in dirt, his thinning hair standing on end, Mohamed looks at me with disbelief. “Azrael was chasing me,” he says, using the Arabic name for the Angel of Death.
By mid-April, ISIS is left with just a handful of neighborhoods in western Mosul as Iraqi forces make a final push to win back control of the city. On April 17, Maj. Ali is shot and killed by an ISIS sniper. When Maj. Salam receives the news in Texas, he posts a heartbroken message on Facebook: “I left you alone. I take the blame. It’s my fault. Forgive me.” ●