MOSUL, Iraq — There was a time before the emergence of the Islamic State that Iraqi Lt. Ali Sahib wanted to be an computer engineer.
That seems like a lifetime ago.
Instead, Sahib took a hiatus from the classroom to train to become a member of Iraqi Special Operation Forces, or ISOF, an elite military unit fighting on the front lines of an ongoing battle to retake Mosul that’s left large swathes of the city destroyed and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee.
The 28-year-old says decades of near-constant fighting in Iraq opened his eyes to a stark reality. “I was born right after a war,” he says, referring to the Iran-Iraq conflict that spanned nearly the entire decade of the ‘80s and left hundreds of thousands dead.
Sahib was a small boy when Iraqi invaded Kuwait and the first Gulf War started. In his teens the George W. Bush administration falsely accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction and having ties to al-Qaeda before launching an ill-fated invasion of his country. Now with the Islamic State backed up and battered in Mosul, Sahib still doesn’t foresee an end to the violence any time soon.
“There will be even more war in Iraq,” he tells me one night last month after a long day of combat in Mosul’s Mansur neighborhood.
If recent ISOF operations in western Mosul are any indication, he might just be right. During one, soldiers were patrolling a street recaptured moments earlier from the Islamic State, or ISIS, when a car barreled toward them and exploded, sending a flaming engine block soaring through the air. The suicide bomber behind the wheel managed to kill one ISOF soldier and wound three others. Remnants of their assailant splattered on their armored Humvees, five of which were totaled in the blast. Amid the smoke and shock those that survived braced for more violence. Suicide bombings are often followed by sniper fire or a complex assault, though not this time. Instead, the ISOF faced another deadly threat. Ammunition inside their flaming trucks began to ignite. Countless rounds fired in all directions while the Islamic State lobs mortars at them from a safe distance. The soldiers had no choice but to wait out the onslaught hunkered down in the nearby bombed-out homes destroyed in the recent fighting.
A few hours later, ISOF Vice Officer Ayman Saad is sporting a bandage on his face where shrapnel from the suicide blast gashed his cheek, recalling the attack as if he’d been in a fender bender.
“They wanted to evacuate us, but we refused to go,” he says, then adding matter-of-factly how he and his ISOF brothers-in-arms have been the target of ISIS suicide bombers three times in just the last two days. “Most of the Islamic State fighters are here (in western Mosul) so that’s where we have to be.”
Deadly explosions and the loss of a fellow soldiers are a regular occurrence for ISOF amid their ongoing battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic extremists who seized the city in 2014. ISOF, along with conventional Iraqi forces and militiamen, have fought to retake the city one building at a time, leaving a trail of ISIS corpses in their wake while taking their own casualties.
In the ISOF battalion that photographer Nish Nalbandian and I recently shadowed, eight were killed in the last month of their Mosul campaign. Many more died earlier during their effort to retake the city that began last October on the eastern outskirts of Mosul and is now deep into the western half of the city.
“This part of the fight has been particularly difficult,” says Major Hazzam Kareem after a long day of orchestrating operations at the front from a makeshift command center in an abandoned home just a few blocks away. “They are using a lot of suicide bombings and forcing the locals to stay behind so they can use them as human shields.”
Earlier he was leading his men through a hostile engagement with ISIS fighters using two-way radio and a map of the Mosul neighborhood loaded on a Samsung tablet, the only source of light in the room.
The major knows all-too well what his battalion is up against here in western Mosul having spent months leading them from fight to fight starting in the eastern suburbs of the city.
“One of the mistakes we made was that when we just held a line, the fighting got worse.” Now their strategy consists of constantly pushing forward in an effort to keep ISIS fighters off balance. Kareem’s unit was tested early and often, to the point where he was forced to abandon his traditional command post and pick up a weapon and return fire.
Since those initial days in the east, he’s made tactical shifts that may seem counterintuitive to keeping his men safe. Instead of staying in their armored vehicles, the major’s men get out of their trucks at the front and patrol hostile territories on foot. This makes it more difficult for would-be suicide bombers to take out an entire squad at a time. The tactic has proven effective in the latter half of the Mosul fight, even though one ISOF soldier was killed earlier that day and others wounded.
Their injuries are treated in makeshift first aid clinics also set up in the homes of Mosul residents that fled the city. A handful of cots, bandages, IV stations, and a small sampling of medication are all medics have to treat them. At one, an ISOF soldier was brought in with a bullet wound to his left arm, an “in-an-out” shot resulting in clean entrance and exit wounds. Both were stitched and dressed. Less than an hour later, the young soldier was in a sling and returning to his unit.
ISOF does battle day and night leaving them chronically sleep deprived. During extended operations they sometimes only get one meal a day consisting of whatever they manage to scrounge or buy from the severely depleted local economy. In one location they managed to squirrel away several sacks of potatoes that will have to sustain several dozen men.
What little reprieve they get from the fighting is taken in abandoned homes they’ve commandeered and turned into makeshift command posts and barracks as they push further west into Islamic State-controlled neighborhoods.
One night we sprawl out on the floor of a bedroom that seems until very recently belonged to a teenage girl. The walls are painted a shade of lavender and covered with written professions of love for a boy named “Hisham” in English that’s slightly misspelled: “I love yo.” On the girl’s vanity still neatly arranged are an array of hair styling products. Three ISOF share the bed covered in a frilly, flowered blanket while still wearing the grimy, mismatched uniforms they’ve been in for weeks. Outside the war is still being waged, through the soldiers sleep through all manner of explosions and gunfire. The onslaughts continue well into the night and taper for a only few hours - never ceasing completely - before ramping up again at dawn.
Despite the constant dangers and poor living conditions, Sgt. Yaseen Ibrahim Khaleel always looks forward to the battle. “I’ve loved the military since I was a little kid and I love to fight,” says Khaleel with the zeal of a schoolboy. He displays an assortment of facial tics and highly animated gestures, one of the reasons his fellow ISOF fighters call him “majnoon,” which in Arabic means “crazy.” It’s both a term of endearment and collective assertion that the constant war waging over several years have seemingly taken a toll on his sanity.
In addition to his odd mannerisms, Khaleel is also crazy strong, which he takes pains to prove by challenging others to arm wrestle. After he and I lock wrists, a contest he wins despite my best efforts, my right forearm feels as if all the tendons are shredded. If his ISOF unit were the “A-Team,” Khaleel would be Murdoch and BA Baracus rolled into one.
Another reason they question his sanity may be his seeming ability to attract enemy fire and shrug off the possibility of being killed. In all, Khaleel claims to have been shot eleven times during his tenure in ISOF pointing to the various places on his arms and legs where he’d been hit. He also sports a gnarly scar on the right side of his head where a bullet went in and out between in scalp and skull. Getting shot that many times and not dying has earned him another descriptor among his fellow ISOF. Khaleel has what is known in their circle as having “whore luck,” the exact of meaning which I can guess though none can explain it without laughing uncontrollably.
Many of his injuries came during ISOF’s battles in other cities. Like his commander and others, Khaleel says the fighting in nearby Baiji was even worse than here in Mosul. That city was prized by the Islamic State because of its lucrative oil refinery, which was helping fund their fight and aspirations toward creating a full-fledged Islamic caliphate. And they fought mercilessly to keep it.
Khaleel recalls how and the others in his battalion were surrounded by ISIS fighters for months. At that time Mosul was still under complete Islamic State control, supplying the Islamists in Bajji with weapons and manpower the likes of which they haven’t seen since. “In Baiji we fought 24 hours a day,” says Khaleel shaking his head. “It’s been the hardest battle of the whole war.”
He’s suffered injury off the battlefield as well. Two of his brothers were killed by al-Qaeda and its subsequent machination in Iraq, the Islamic State. Only 27 years old, the deep-set lines on his face deepen when speaking of them, making him appear much older.
Despite his battle-scarred exterior Khaleel betrays his softer side when talking about wanting to marry his sweetheart of nine years back home in Babylon and is concern about how his soldiering worries his parents.
“My father is almost dead, he worries about me so much ,” Khaleel says with a somber expression devoid of his trademark animation. “And my mother, she worries more than my father.”
His isn’t the only one with family that worries about him. His lieutenant, Sahib was recently married, taking only 12 days away from the fight, not enough time for a proper honeymoon.
“My wife was upset,” says Sahib. “But this is what I do. I realize that might take her a while to understand.”
Then while talking about his hopes of one day having children, our conversation is interrupted by a fellow ISOF soldier. His warm smile while talking about his newly betrothed quickly vanishes while listening to a status report on the fight still raging well after dark.
When we resume talking I ask about the men from his battalion that have been killed in Mosul and other battlefronts. “Of course it hurts me, but it also makes sharper and more aware.”
He gets up and heads for a meeting to plan the next day’s operations.