“Remember the Law of the Cigarette,” says my fixer Mohammed as we approach a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mosul. We’ve spent the morning driving through a landscape scarred by the war against Isis. Villages are filled with ruined buildings and pitted roads. Posters of those martyred dot the highway, as they do almost everywhere in Iraq.

We join a short queue and a guard looks vaguely in our direction. “Ok, prepare the cigarette. Oh, and take off your seatbelt. If you’re not smoking and you’re wearing a seatbelt, it means you’re UN, which is a problem because it means paperwork.” I do as instructed, and also take out a set of prayer beads I bought in Baghdad. “Nice touch,” says Mohammed with a grin as we pass through with ease.

Mosul suffered more than almost any other Iraqi city following the US invasion. The removal of Saddam brought the people a taste of democracy, but it also unleashed a sectarian war, mainly between Sunni and Shia. Of many things the carnage spawned, the Sunni terror group Isis was arguably the worst. 

In December 2013, after an attack on the city of Fallujah, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the leader of al-Qaeda’s pathologically anti-Shia offshoot the “Islamic State of Iraq”, announced he was forming the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. Six months later, it captured Mosul, Iraq’s second most important city. From the pulpit of the city’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the birth of a new worldwide Islamic Caliphate.

Isis then swept across the country. The Iraqi army simply couldn’t cope. At its peak, in autumn 2014, the caliphate spanned 41,000 miles across Iraq and Syria ― and ruled over eight million people, as well as its 40,000 foreign fighters who arrived from 120 countries. As we drive into the city, I ask Mohammed who joined Isis. “Various people,” he replies. “Those who supported Saddam; people who had family members killed by the Americans; and then many Sunnis who got sick of being treated like shit by Baghdad and the Iraqi security forces after Saddam fell.”

Saddam’s fall emancipated Iraq’s Shia majority, many of whom were looking for payback after feeling victimised under his Sunni rule. “There was so much anger here,” Mohammed tells me. “In Mosul, between 2011-2014, every neighbourhood had only one entrance and exit and if the soldier guarding it was in a bad mood, he’d just close everything. There were lines of cars waiting for hours.”

We weave slowly through traffic until we reach the Taqatu al Dawasa roundabout, one of the busiest in Mosul. “Over there used to be a tall building — the Orzdy,” Mohammed tells me breezily. “Isis used to throw gays off it.”

Almost everything around me is either half-destroyed or being rebuilt. “This street used to be a line of trenches,” Mohammed says as he points out of the window to his left. “The two sides would just fire bombs and rockets at each other.” We pass a Mosul police patrol truck with a man in a balaclava standing on the back, holding a mounted PKC machine gun. SWAT is written across his back.

We enter Mosul’s old city. It’s a hive of winding narrow streets with construction works everywhere. I notice some graffiti and ask if it’s political. “Real Estate advert,” he replies. Mosul was once a battlefield; now it’s a building site. Billions have poured in to regenerate the city. “ When I was embedded with the military during the Battle of Mosul,” explains Mohammed, “this street was all rubble. Only Humvees could drive here. I’ve never seen so many people get killed. At least 50 every day — and that was just in our area. God only knows how many civilians got caught in crossfire.

We get out and walk. Mohammed points to a green door. “That’s a garden. During the fighting there were so many bodies there was no space in the cemeteries, so they’d bury them in their gardens.” We walk on. Once more Mohammed sweeps his arms outwards. “All this was a battlefield — between the Iraqi Golden Division and Isis.”

If the fight against Isis was brutal, their rule here was arguably worse. In a small shop in the old city, I meet Sarmad Al Moaymy, a realtor who lived under their rule. “In 2014, even several months before the city’s fall, it was obvious that Isis had taken over — and it was Nouri al Maliki [who became Prime Minister after Saddam’s fall] who gave them the “space” to do so,” he tells me as we drink tea. “The Government treated the people here really badly, arresting them randomly and forcing them to pay bribes to get out of jail, which they couldn’t afford. The people felt like they were being suffocated. Isis came and kicked out the Government and gave them freedom — they felt alive again; in the beginning at least.

“For a while the city was safe; every neighbourhood had the concrete blocks around their entrances removed; people could drive around again. Then Isis slowly started publishing laws and restrictions: no shorts or tight trousers; then people had to have beards. That’s when we started to realise what they were. Every day they would execute people on the roundabout in front of everyone. It was terrifying: today it was a stranger, tomorrow your neighbour, the next day it could be you. I refused to grow a beard so after six months I fled the city.”

In the nearby bazaar, I meet Fares Khalaf, a former sergeant in the fire department of the army and now a wheat farmer dressed in the traditional thawb. The market is a sensory assault: old electric fans recycle hot air; cuts of meat hang from hooks; sparks fly from welding tools. Rows of fake Prada and Hermes bags are lined up next to sacks of vegetables and nuts and fruit. “Life under Daesh [Isis] flipped upside down,” he tells me. “Before, we used to farm our barley and sell it to the government; under Isis there was no government — so we had to come to the bazaar to sell it. Wages for workers fell from 25,000 Dinars to 3,000. Many people tried to flee. But I stayed, where would I go? My family and my farm are here. And besides, you need money to flee.”

By this point, Isis’s violence had spread well beyond the city walls. “They killed nine from my village, one of whom was my son,” he says without changing his tone. “It was in 2014. My son and eight other men were driving in their cars and Isis shot them. They did an investigation afterwards and came to my house to say that they had killed him by accident and that they were sorry. I said: ‘What does your sorry get me? Does it get my son back?’”

It was this sort of barbaric behaviour that forced the Iraqi state to finally step in — even if it needed a lot of help to finish the job. On 13 June 2014, just days after Isis took Mosul, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, issued a call to all Iraqis to take up arms against the terror group. For the Shia it had the force of a Fatwa. Two days later, Al Maliki announced the formation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a group of (predominantly Shia) militias who would band together to fight Isis, and in so doing radically change the Iraqi state.

Only Sistani had the moral authority to unite these rival groups. Few noted the irony of him bringing them together in a de facto alliance with Tehran. The Iranians had been arming and funding Shia groups in Iraq since the fall of Saddam — the PMF was their chance to scale up this influence. Meanwhile, someone with sufficient military skills was needed to run them effectively, and with the charisma and political nous to keep them united. There was perhaps only one man in the entire Middle East who could do that: the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

Not just an accomplished military commander, Soleimani was a master of a particularly Iranian art: political warfare. For years he had overseen the killings of US soldiers and subverted US policy in Iraq wherever he could. Now he dreamed of turning the PMF into a centralised force like the IRGC.

Soleimani soon made his presence felt. He was, by all accounts, “fearless” — famous for never wearing a flak jacket, even on the front lines. His fame spread. In December 2014, Newsweek put Soleimani on the cover, while the accompanying article claimed that the Shia militias were the only chance the world had of defeating Isis.

In truth, the militias were just one part of a combined effort that involved the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and, flying overhead providing air cover in what was an inescapable irony for all concerned, the US-led coalition. For the next two years, this alliance drove Isis out of cities across Iraq. By the end of 2016, it controlled just 7% of Iraqi territory. Its final stronghold was Mosul and both the Iraqi security forces and the coalition were determined that the PMF — whose militias were often brutal to the Sunni inhabitants of the towns they liberated — would be kept out of the fight.

Rebin Rozhbayani, was then an officer in the 3rd battalion, 1st brigade of the Kurdish Peshmerga, was part of the first push to retake Mosul on 16 October 2016. The battalion’s job was to pierce the Isis lines that surrounded the city, open the gates, and allow the Iraqi army to enter the city.

The fight was tough. On the first day, as they reached the village of Fazilia near Mosul, a suicide bomber drove into their convoy, destroying two Humvees and killing three of his comrades. Canadian air support then announced they were pulling out to another sector where other forces were taking heavy casualties.

“We continued,” he tells me. “But then a second car hit our PAK unit. We lost two more Peshmerga. Once the Canadians had gone, we had to stop and put our American armoured vehicles into a 360-degree defensive circle. We spent the night like that, though no one slept as we were surrounded by Isis not knowing when they would attack. We were two brigades, 200 Peshmergas, facing about 200 of them.”

The second day was perhaps worse: “We killed about 20 Isis fighters who emerged from tunnels they had dug around the city to attack us with RPGs and SPG-9s. Getting captured was always a big fear. In the beginning, they wanted to capture rather than kill us. I used to listen to their radio and they always said: ‘Take them as prisoners, it’s so much more effective.’ A lot of their power came from their beheading videos. That’s partly how they captured Mosul so quickly. Their videos were so violent that the Iraqis forces became scared to fight them.”

After losing 31 Peshmerga, the brigade managed to enter the village of Bashiqa, where the fight was easier since Isis were withdrawing to Mosul for their final stand. It was the beginning of the end.

Rozhbayani accepts that Iran played a role in fighting Isis but, he stresses, it always had its own agenda — it didn’t matter what was good for Iraq. “The plan was to push Isis out of Iraq and back into Syria. But [Syrian leader] Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s client and the Iranians didn’t want them there, so they pushed them toward Kurdistan instead. And then at the end of it all, the PMF got 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament,” he concludes with a slight laugh. Once more, Soleimani’s political skills played a role. After Isis’s defeat, the Iranian-backed militias proclaimed themselves the country’s saviours, organising victory parades and celebrations.

Even today, in parts of the city, images of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the former deputy leader of the PMF, both killed in a US drone strike in 2020, are pinned to almost every lamppost. The checkpoint to the city is supposed to be manned by local police, but the guards are Shia militias dressed up in their uniforms. “Look at their beards,” Mohammed told me as we passed through. “No Iraqi policeman or soldier is allowed to have a beard like that.” They collect a tax of 10,000 dinars from every truck that comes through.

We later pass the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, its dome reduced to a torn and gaping turquoise shell swaddled in brown scaffolding. When Mosul was about to fall, Isis had a choice: either retreat from the site where the Caliphate had been announced or blow it up. It chose the latter.

Will Mosul recover? I ask Mohammed. “Life is back,” he replies. “Corruption is back. In fact, everything is worse — because so many people lost loved ones. There is a huge ditch in Khalsa in southwest Mosul, which contains the bodies of more than 14,000 civilians and police killed by Isis. And all this for what? WMDs? Oh please. The only WMD Iraq ever had was stupidity.”

A question repeatedly occurs to me as I travel through Iraq. If forced to choose, is it better to have freedom or stability? Twenty years after the 2003 invasion, it’s clear the people of Mosul have neither.

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