Battle for IraqView film
NEWSCASTER: ISIS’s so-called caliphate is under attack.
NEWSCASTER: It’s been an effective summer for Iraqi forces battling ISIL fighters.
NEWSCASTER: The edge of Mosul is close.
NEWSCASTER: Iraq’s prime minister says the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is going more quickly than expected.
NEWSCASTER: Iraqi forces are saying it’s going much faster than planned.
NARRATOR: Mosul, northern Iraq. Reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is on his way to the front line. For more than two years, this city of over a million people has been under ISIS control. Now the Iraqi army, backed by Kurdish forces and U.S. air strikes, is trying to retake it.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, The Guardian/FRONTLINE: Iraq’s my own country. I lived in Iraq. I grew up in Iraq. I knew Mosul since I was a child. My father, he used to take me with him. I walked in the old city, in the old market. I had this connection to Mosul.
In 2016, Mosul was declared as this final battle, the final showdown with ISIS. I went to Mosul to see if the liberation of the city will usher the end of this endless war that’s been going on in Iraq since 2003.
NARRATOR: The operation began in October 2016, and the army quickly defeated ISIS in the villages surrounding the city. But when they entered Mosul itself, the advance was slowed by fierce fighting. ISIS used snipers hidden amongst the civilians to exact heavy casualties, and they began an unprecedented campaign of suicide attacks.
It is now five weeks since the battle began. Ghaith is with the elite Iraqi Special Operations Forces, known as the Golden Division. They’re taking him to their commander in eastern Mosul.
SOLDIERS: Follow the new road, that road,
Is it secure?
I don’t know. I’m not certain.
Go straight. Go straight.
It’s the same road, sir. It’s the same.
NARRATOR: The route to the front line passes through areas that until recently were controlled by ISIS.
SOLDIER: [subtitles] If there are civilians in the area, they raise white flags. If there’s shooting from a house, we know ISIS are there.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: The narrative was the Iraqi army’s moving very quickly. ISIS lines are collapsing. As we start driving in, you realize you’re not driving through a liberated neighborhood per se, but you’re driving through a battle zone.
SOLDIER: Look, two Humvees.
SOLDIER: They’ve been hit.
SOLDIER: They’re burned out.
NARRATOR: Unknown to the soldiers, ISIS fighters are lying in wait.
SOLDIERS: They’re close! Go back!
They’re shooting from the car opposite, there.
Go back. Go back. Just go back.
ISIS is shooting at us from ahead.
Did you see the flash?
Yes, I saw them shooting at us.
NARRATOR: Ghaith and the soldiers make it past the ISIS snipers and stop at a base the unit has set up in a local house.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Where we are is 380 meters from one front line, 400 meters from another front line. The fire is really close. As we drove, even the so-called liberated neighborhood, which we are now, is under constant fire. A bullet whizzed over our heads. The distance between war and civilian life is almost non-existent. It’s kind of street by street.
[radio traffic] [subtitles]
Listen sir. Listen sir─
The unit with the tank has arrived.
It’s clear, clear, send.
NARRATOR: The unit’s leader, Lieutenant Colonel Muntadher, is using drones to direct his men to ISIS positions. He commands around 125 soldiers and has survived several ISIS attacks. Muntadher has a reputation for toughness. To his men, he is known simply as Fuladh, which means “Steel.”
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [through interpreter] This is Gokjeli. The radio station is here. We want to clear all this area back to Gokjeli. We will close this area off. I want to secure the residential area. These are tall apartment buildings, so it’s very hard to fight.
[radio traffic] [subtitles]
SOLDIER: Two fighters are trying to infiltrate our lines.
SOLDIER: We have killed two of them to avenge one of our martyrs.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: God bless you. Well done. Well done.
NARRATOR: The Iraqi Army has a bad reputation in Mosul. The population here is mainly Sunni Muslim, the army mainly Shia. Before the ISIS takeover, the army was accused of sectarian abuses and illegal detentions.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: The civilians─ I’m sure they look at the soldiers and they worry who will be detained next. It’s like two people of one nation finally meeting. A week ago, three days ago, those people would have not imagined sitting there having conversation with a Shia Iraqi soldier from the south.
NARRATOR: Muntadher says he understands the residents’ fears, but he is trying to convince them that he is on their side.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [through interpreter] People are starting to trust us, and they are telling us where the ISIS infiltrators are hiding. The people who’ve been liberated, they say the army is not sectarian. This is not a sectarian army or a Shia army or anything of the sort. It’s an Iraqi army coming to liberate.
NARRATOR: But the fight has become bogged down in Mosul’s densely populated neighborhoods.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [through interpreter] Before one of our soldiers pulls the trigger, he needs to be aware of exactly who is in front of him. I mean, an army can fight against a regular army in the usual way, tank against tank, soldier against soldier. But what is happening here is a dirty battle against dirty people. It’s difficult liberating these areas from this filth.
[radio traffic] [subtitles]
SOLDIER: Sir, we are in a convoy of 10 Humvees coming in your direction.
NARRATOR: It’s dangerous to stay so close to the front line at night, so Ghaith and some of the soldiers pull back.
SOLDIERS: Are they behind us?
So when you turn, keep them right behind us.
NARRATOR: The soldiers seem nervous. ISIS fighters are in the area.
SOLDIER: [subtitles] This was a car bomb.
NARRATOR: They arrive in the neighborhood where they will spend the night and meet up with some of their fellow soldiers.
SOLDIERS: We have been shot at from that street over there almost continually.
There was a sniper positioned there all day. He did not move.
Clear, clear, received. We have two injured.
Clear, clear, received.
NARRATOR: The soldiers are on the lookout for ISIS collaborators among the civilians. They have orders from the lieutenant colonel to treat captives humanely. But away from the fighting, one of the soldiers watches videos of ISIS suspects being tortured.
SOLDIER: Look what I threw on him. [screaming on video] Hot water. We scalded his skin off! This is the boy in red.
SOLDIER: The handsome one?
NARRATOR: A local family has agreed to let Ghaith and the soldiers spend the night in their house. They are a mile back from the front line and feel safe. But they’re wrong. The war is about to come to them.
[eight hours later]
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I wake up early in the morning. I went outside to the street, and I saw the soldier across the street from me and he shouted, “Mufakhkhakha, mufakhkhakha,” car bomb, car bomb.
[explosion] This is the other entrance of the building!
NARRATOR: An ISIS truck bomb has exploded a few feet in front of the house where Ghaith and the soldiers spent the night. The house has collapsed.
Ghaith immediately starts filming. He finds the soldier who warned him.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] How did you know the truck bomb was coming? Did you see it?
SOLDIER: [subtitles] Yes, I saw it and started running towards you to let you know.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] I saw you at the door telling me to run. If I had not run to the other room, I would be dead.
NARRATOR: ISIS gunmen are now trying to pick off the soldiers, who fire back.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: We were in the middle of this huge scene of carnage. Everything is this dark, black, gray mixture of concrete and burnt plastic, puddles of water, debris, burned Humvees. Then the civilians start emerging from the collapsed houses.
NARRATOR: Ghaith’s colleague and producer, Josh Baker, has dug himself out of the rubble. He will later discover he has a fractured spine.
No soldiers have been killed. The civilians have borne the brunt of the attack. Several are feared dead under the debris. Those that survived are now homeless.
SOLDIER: Come and get your guns from the cars in case a civilian takes them,
SOLDIER: [to civilians] Don’t be scared. Don’t be scared. Come on. Come on quickly! Come, give me your hand
OLD WOMAN: Where? Where should I step?
SOLDIER: ISIS are getting closer. They’re probably crossing the street.
SOLDIER: Let them come. [expletive] them.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Where is the commander?
SOLDIER: Come with me.
NARRATOR: The soldiers think the attack was meant to kill Lieutenant Colonel Muntadher.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: I think that day, we realized the complexity of the battle. The civilians are still there. This is a battle happening between two enemies on a land inhabited by civilians. No one knows how many civilians have been killed in this battle of Mosul, not even the government of Iraq.
NARRATOR: In the weeks that followed, Ghaith and many other journalists pulled out of Iraq, and Mosul slipped from the headlines.
In December, when Ghaith returns, Iraqi forces have made little progress and ISIS suicide bombings in Mosul have become routine. Today, three truck bombs have detonated in a market. The casualties are rushed to a hospital in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil.
INJURED MAN: [subtitles] We had just started walking in the market when I heard a shout, “Suicide bomber! Suicide Bomber!” At the beginning, I didn’t take it seriously. But when I saw all the people in the market running away, I followed them.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] What is your name?
AHMED: [subtitles] Ahmed.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] How old are you?
AHMED: [subtitles] Fourteen. We heard gunshots, and I saw people running. I thought the army was shooting at them. So I ran to a house. A car bomb came and exploded. I looked down, I saw blood. I knew I was injured.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] They brought you here in an ambulance, and your family are still in Mosul?
AHMED: [subtitles] Yes.
NARRATOR: Since the battle began, thousands of civilians have been injured in Mosul. The hospital’s senior surgeon has been struggling to cope.
PHYSICIAN: I have patients for two hour here. And the patient has vascular injury, and there is no theater. [operating room] I put the patients here, and I do operations. There is no local anesthesia, for example.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So you don’t have enough medicine. You don’t─
PHYSICIAN: No. There is no equipment at all.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: So no preparation for the war.
PHYSICIAN: No. Zero preparation, almost zero. There is no any help.
NARRATOR: These residents of Mosul have all spent more than two years living under ISIS rule.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] How would you describe the last two years in Mosul?
INJURED MAN: [subtitles] It was very harsh and painful, very difficult to describe. You couldn’t call it a life. It was slavery.
NARRATOR: More than 160,000 people have fled the fighting in Mosul. Many are living in camps outside the city. Abu Yassin is a computer engineer who worked at Mosul’s university.
ABU YASSIN: [through interpreter] Compared to home and what we have experienced, we see this camp as a blessing. Yes, it’s miserable, but it is still better than death.
NARRATOR: He tells Ghaith that when the Iraqi Special Forces first drove ISIS out of his neighborhood, it was a moment of hope.
ABU YASSIN: [through interpreter] People started making jokes, saying it’s time to shave our beards. The barbershop opened, and we all went and shaved. We were happy to see the end of the oppression.
NARRATOR: But then ISIS began launching suicide attacks near his home.
ABU YASSIN: [through interpreter] The Iraqi army is taking ground, but nobody’s holding it. So what is the use of liberating us, but then letting ISIS come back in to kill not only the army but the people, too?
NARRATOR: He is now worried that even if the Iraqi Army defeats ISIS, life will not improve in Mosul.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] Are you afraid for the future?
ABU YASSIN: [through interpreter] What I’m hearing now, speaking to people in Mosul on the phone, is that things are changing. The soldiers who liberated us were one thing, but those coming now are different. So people are scared. Things could change. People have limited patience, and time is running out. When you feel you’re being killed by the Shia militia, by ISIS, by your neighbor, by the army, what’s the point of living? You might as well join the fight yourself.
NARRATOR: Since the rise of ISIS in Iraq, thousands of their fighters have been arrested and detained. Some have been taken here to the Kurdish town of Sulemeniyah. Ghaith has been given permission to interview a captured ISIS fighter with a Kurdish intelligence officer in the room.
Adil Ali Ahmed says that when ISIS took over his hometown in 2014, many welcomed them as they were sick of the Iraqi Army acting like an occupying force.
ADIL ALI AHMED: [through interpreter] They came suddenly. It was like a miracle. They lifted all the checkpoints. There were no arrests. Nobody would ask you where you were going. Because of this, I became convinced and joined them.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] This all sounds beautiful, but the security services say they caught you with 79 magnetic bombs, 100 liters of TNT, 9 suicide bomb belts, and you smuggled 7 suicide bombers from Ryaz to Kirkuk and 2 car bombs. What do you say to that?
ADIL ALI AHMED: [through interpreter] I was forced to do this. I feared them. I had no other choice.
NARRATOR: Kurdish authorities say he confessed to his role in the suicide attacks.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: [subtitles] When you were helping these bombers, did you think you were serving Islam? And the Islamic state?
ADIL ALI AHMED: In the beginning, yes. But when I started seeing death and destruction, I regretted it. If I could, I would tell the people I’ve hurt to take their revenge on me. I mean─ [looks down]
NARRATOR: Back in Mosul, the battle has not been going according to plan. Lieutenant Colonel Muntadher and his unit have advanced only a mile further into the city since they were hit by the truck bomb.
SOLDIER: [to group of civilians] [subtitles] Do you want some water? Come. Come.
NARRATOR: He says that more than half his men have been wounded or killed in ISIS attacks. But he remains determined to win over the local population.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [through interpreter] I want my troops to make a good impression, so I win the trust of the people because the people in Mosul have lost trust in the police and army units who were here 2013 and 2014. There were mistakes. Mistakes were committed here that our military and civilian leaders have acknowledged. There were abuses. There was oppression of the people.
NARRATOR: The commander’s approach pays off. He gets a tip from a resident that three local men are suspected of being ISIS collaborators. Ghaith is filming as the men are being taken to Iraqi intelligence for interrogation.
SOLDIER: My weapon is ready. I will [expletive] anyone that moves. I will break him. I will break anyone who moves.
SOLDIER: My weapon is ready, my safety is off.
SOLDIER: Shall I get started on them?
SOLDIER: With your gun?
SOLDIER: No, I’ve got my fists!
SOLDIER: Tell me, how old are you? Working with ISIS at your age?
PRISONER: I’m a construction worker.
SOLDIER: Don’t tell me you’re a construction worker, I will headbutt you and break your teeth.
PRISONER: By God, I haven’t done anything.
SOLDIER: May God take your life away. Just wait and see what happens if you don’t confess. It’s easy here, but when they reach where we’re going, they’ll be chopped into pieces
SOLDIER: They’re not fighters, they’re just officials. They support the ideology.
SOLDIER: They are in the organization, to hell with them. If you join ISIS, you are not human anymore.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [through interpreter] We’re here to bring peace and security inside Mosul and defeat ISIS. There are two forces at work here, good and evil. The world is divided in this way. There are people with ISIS, and there are people helping us against ISIS.
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: The commander is treading on a very delicate balance, a balance between defeating ISIS, killing his enemy, and not repeating the same mistakes that led to the people of Mosul realizing that the army is a force of oppression. In that delicate balance rests the future of Mosul and the future of Iraq.
MAN ON STREET: [subtitles] The soldiers came to my house and took my son.
NARRATOR: On the street, a local man complains to Muntadher that Iraqi forces have arrested his son.
MAN ON STREET: [subtitles] He’s just a kid. He’s only 16. When I came out, I saw them taking him. I’m certain he has nothing to do with this.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [subtitles] Listen uncle, I can’t return him to you.
MAN ON STREET: [subtitles] Just let me see him.
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER: [subtitles] You can’t see him. A person is taken based on charges against him. He won’t be tortured and he won’t be killed. They won’t do anything to him. He’ll be interrogated to find out if the charges are fair.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, someone spots an ISIS drone armed with a grenade.
SOLDIER: [subtitles] It went that way! It went that way!
SOLDIER: [subtitles] Yes, it went that way!
SOLDIER: [subtitles] Scatter around!
NARRATOR: The soldiers try to shoot down the drone. Once again, they think it was an ISIS attempt to kill Muntadher. The grenade exploded on the spot he had been standing seconds before. Then they spot more drones.
SOLDIER: [subtitles] It’s not just one, there are two drones! One went that way, one went the other way.
SOLDIER: [subtitles] Nobody stay on the street! Scatter! Scatter!
Lt. Col. MUNTADHER [through interpreter] The battle for Mosul is key to the future of Iraq. It’s an international battle. The whole world is watching it. As long as I have the ability to help the people, I will help them. But the enemy we are fighting is the most vicious enemy in the history of the world. The people we are fighting, they don’t believe in retreat. They will fight to the death.
SOLDIER: [subtitles] Sir, the drone fell over there!
NEWSCASTER: ISIS has destroyed much of the city.
NEWSCASTER: Special forces now control the eastern side
NEWSCASTER: A war of attrition has set in.
NEWSCASTER: They have yet to enter the west of Mosul.
NEWSCASTER: Once a vibrant city─
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: You know, I started this journey thinking, feeling a glimmer of hope that the war might actually end after liberating Mosul, that maybe we can have a moment of peace. By the end, because of the level of bloodshed, the level of trauma, I don’t think peace will come easily.
It’s not about liberating a land. It’s not about capturing or defeating ISIS. It’s about how much hatred there exists in the society. So that cycle of violence, unless it’s broken, I don’t think we’ll have peace in this country. I’m leaving with─ with far much less hope than I started this journey.
NARRATOR: The battle for Mosul goes on. Muntadher’s men and other units of the Golden Division face many more months of fighting ISIS in a city that still contains hundreds of thousands of civilians.