One hot and sticky evening in July, in the dying days of the battle for Mosul, a group of Iraqi army officers sat for dinner in a requisitioned civilian house not far from the ruins of the mosque where, three years earlier, the leader of Islamic State had announced the creation of a new caliphate.
At the head of the table sat the commander, large and burly, flanked by his two majors. The rest of the officers were seated according to rank, with the youngest officers placed at the far end. The commander, who was trying to lose weight, had banned his cook from serving meat at mealtimes, but tonight was a special occasion. The day before, his unit had liberated another block of streets in the Old City without suffering any casualties. In celebration, a feast of bread soaked in okra stew, and roasted meat shredded over heaps of rice flavoured with nuts and raisins, was laid out on a white plastic table.
Over the previous eight months, since the commander and his men had started fighting in Mosul, the caliphate had shrunk to a tiny sliver of the Old City squeezed between the River Tigris and advancing columns of army and police forces. Thousands of Isis fighters, who captured the city in 2014, were now trapped, living without running water or electricity, with dwindling supplies of food and medicine, being bombed day and night by US drones and jets. Caught in the siege with them were thousands of civilians. The few who were managing to escape came out filthy, emaciated and crazed by thirst and the constant bombing.
The officers at dinner that night were all veterans of the war against Isis, but nothing in their long years of fighting compared to what they had experienced over the past few weeks in Mosul, one of the fiercest urban battles since the second world war. They fought in narrow alleyways, old stone houses and dense networks of tunnels and basements. Their advance was sometimes measured in metres, and their casualties were mounting.
“We have one more battle and Mosul will be fully liberated, inshallah,” the commander said as he tucked into his meal. A captain who was still limping from a recent injury said: “Our fathers used to talk about the Iran-Iraq war as the ‘long war’. That one lasted for eight years. Well, soon this war against Isis will surpass it.”
Laughing, the commander asked the officers to open the military maps on their phones and proceeded to explain the plan for the next day’s advance. “You jump into this building, make a fire base here and here at street corners,” he said, giving them the coordinates of the street. “You advance towards this high building. Your flanks will be secured by other units. Once you take the building, you will dominate the whole area with your snipers and we can reach the river in few hours.”
Before leaving, a wiry junior officer named Taha asked the commander: “Sir, what do we do with the two detainees?” The prisoners had crossed the frontlines the night before and taken shelter with a civilian who denounced them to the army. “We tried to hand them to the intelligence service, but they refused to take them.”
“Yes,” the commander said, “they told me: ‘You deal with detainees from your end. We can’t hold them because of human rights and Red Cross inspections.’”
“We worked on them all night,” said the junior officer. “One eventually confessed that he was with Daesh [Isis], but he said he left them two months ago.” At that, everyone in the room laughed. “The other,” the junior officer continued, “we beat him hard but he didn’t confess, so I think he must be innocent.”
“Just finish them,” said a major.
“Release one and finish the other,” the commander said.
The sentence issued, now came the question of who would be bestowed with the honour of executing an Isis fighter. Kifah, a tall and lean soldier, stood next to the table and asked to be given the prisoner. But the junior officer suggested that they gift the prisoner to a captain who was still grieving the loss of his brother, killed by Isis a month ago.
“Call him and give him the detainee,” said the commander, getting up from his chair. The officers rose swiftly and stood to attention as he made his way to the living room where tea was to be served.