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, heralded as the “Golden Division” —the almost-invincible killers of ISIS.
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. Others 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.
The ICTF approaches eastern Mosul.
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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?”
Members of the battalion at the start of the Mosul offensive.
Warzer Jaff for BuzzFeed News
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.
“This is not our job, street fights. We entered into a dirty kind of war.”
As our Humvee bounces along, the driver tells me he idolized the special forces growing up during the 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!”
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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.”
“Abbas! Be conservative with your ammunition! We haven’t even gotten into the village yet!”
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.
An Iraqi special forces soldier with an ISIS suspect.
Warzer Jaff for BuzzFeed News
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.
The battalion on the outskirts of Mosul.
Warzer Jaff for BuzzFeed News