Story Publication logo January 11, 2016

Iraq: The Front Lines


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This year, a force comprised of Iraqi soldiers, Iranian-backed militias, Kurdish peshmerga, and...

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“I can’t take it anymore!” a young Sunni fighter near Mosul said, tears streaking his face. “They’re killing our families fifteen minutes away from here! We sit here and stare at the other side and hear the news, and there’s nothing we can do.” Image by Moises Saman. Iraq, 2015.

Two months ago, Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government, held a press conference on a hill overlooking Sinjar, a town in the northwestern corner of Iraq. The day before, following an intense bombardment by American warplanes, Kurdish forces had taken control of Sinjar for the first time since they were routed from it by the Islamic State, or ISIS, in August of 2014. As smoke plumes and helicopters ascended behind him, Barzani, standing at a podium of sandbags, declared the town "liberated."

After a retinue of bodyguards spirited the President away in a sport-utility vehicle, the foreign correspondents and local journalists headed down the hill to view the damage. On the outskirts of Sinjar the road became impassable: damaged, clogged with military trucks, and littered with debris. My interpreter and I parked and continued on foot. The town, once home to a hundred thousand people, was devastated. ISIS had killed or displaced nearly all the inhabitants, most of whom belonged to Iraq's Yazidi religious minority. It had burned down their houses, looted their shops, and blown up their shrines. Whatever remained the American air strikes had destroyed.

A lone man with a rifle seemed to know where he was going. We hurried to catch up with him.

"I'm checking on my uncle's house," he said.

His name was Azad—he wouldn't give his family name—and he told us he grew up in Sinjar. When ISIS began seizing territory in eastern Syria and then across northern Iraq, two summers ago, troops with the Iraqi Kurdish armed forces, or peshmerga, were deployed in the town. That June, ISIS captured Mosul—the second-largest city in the country, eighty miles to the east—yet most residents still felt safe. But when ISIS moved into Sinjar the peshmerga withdrew. Hundreds of civilians were killed. Azad and his family were among some fifty thousand Yazidis who escaped into the Sinjar Mountains, a thirty-mile-long range that looms above the town. Most of the refugees were evacuated by helicopter or relocated to camps farther north, but many of them, including Azad's family, chose to remain amid the frigid peaks, living in tents with little food or water, waiting for the day when they could return to their homes.

"That's it," Azad said. He nodded toward a narrow building with blown-out windows, a sagging roof, and caved-in walls. The ground floor had been a shop. Its metal shutter lay on the sidewalk in a heap, like unfurled cloth.

"What will you do now?" I asked.

Azad looked around. It was getting dark.

"Go back up the mountain," he said. He turned and walked away.

Nearby, on the roadside, a paunchy, important-looking man was addressing a group of thin, less important men. When we approached, he introduced himself as the mayor of Sinjar. As he elaborated on his credentials—he was also a parliamentarian, an engineer, and a military commander—a group of Iraqi police officers appeared. The mayor hailed them.

"Be careful," he told the officers. "A lot of these buildings have not been cleared. We have information that there are still some ISIS fighters hiding in them."

That night, we camped in the mountains. Early the next morning, as we navigated the ninety-three hairpin turns that led down to the town, it was easy to appreciate Sinjar's strategic importance: Highway 47, a two-lane asphalt road, passes straight through the town's center. Thirty miles to the east is Tal Afar, an ISIS stronghold where camps are believed to hold hundreds of captives; fifty miles past Tal Afar is Mosul. To the west, the highway leads to Syria. Before the peshmerga operation, Highway 47 had linked Raqqa, the largest city in Syria held by ISIS, to Mosul. Now ISIS would have to rely on an onerous network of secondary routes through the deserts to the south.

In town, the main roads had been cleaned up, and we were able to drive several miles past the southern outskirts, to a village called Domiz, where bulldozers and backhoes were digging new trenches, heaping the red soil into high berms. An expanse of untended fields stretched beyond them. There were villages out there, too: vague compounds, water tanks, radio towers.

"All of that belongs to ISIS," a peshmerga general said. "Last night, we found three of them. We shot at them, but they got away."

An explosion erupted nearby, and then gunfire. Soldiers grabbed weapons and ran into a dense collection of buildings behind us. We followed to a large house surrounded by dozens of peshmerga troops. Everyone was shouting. Shots burst inside the house.

"He still has a gun!" someone yelled. "He's still alive!"

"Get out of there! He might blow himself up!"

A man on the second-floor balcony of a building across the street hoisted a grenade-launcher onto his shoulder. "I can kill him with this," he said.

"No! No! No! We have men in there!"

The man set down the launcher, shrugged.

A crowd had assembled around the entrance to the house. An older officer wearing sunglasses emerged. "Make way, make way," he said. Eventually, two soldiers in desert fatigues hauled out a battered man by his ankles. A gray tunic was bunched around his neck, and he was covered with blood. On his leg was an improvised bandage. He had black shoulder-length hair and a long beard. His eyes, wide open, were blue; his arms splayed behind him as he was dragged on his back into the street.

"Fuck his sister!"

"Long live the peshmerga! Long live Barzani!"

A soldier in a patrol cap bent down and touched the man with the backs of his fingers, as if checking him for fever. He gave a thumbs-up.

"Still alive."

Everyone had his phone out and was taking pictures.

"Get one of me," one soldier said. He handed off his phone, squatted beside the dying man, and spat in his face. "Did you get it?"

"Call an ambulance," someone said. "We want him alive."

"Let's fuck him up," another suggested.

"No, we don't do that. That's not our way."

After several minutes, a backhoe arrived, and the man was loaded into its bucket. We all followed the machine to the trench, where it dumped him on the grass. More pictures were taken. It seemed likely now that the man was dead, although at some point someone asked, "Where's the doctor? Isn't he coming?"

No one seemed to hear.


Such intimate encounters with the enemy are rare in northern Iraq. In December, three hundred miles to the south of Sinjar, a coalition of Iraqi forces and tribal fighters recaptured Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, a notoriously violent province west of Baghdad. It was the largest city anywhere to be taken back from ISIS. But Iraq's northern front has remained relatively static. Tens of thousands of Kurdish troops man fixed positions along six hundred miles of trenches connecting Syria to Iran. In some spots, the gap between ISIS and the Kurdish regional government is measured in kilometres; in others, metres. One peshmerga unit near Erbil, the Kurdish capital, occupies a high ridge that overlooks an ISIS-held town.

There are many reasons for the stalemate—some tactical, some political. A major obstacle is Mosul. When I visited the peshmerga unit on the ridge, its operations officer told me that they could easily take the town below, Bashiqa. But Mosul lies only ten miles farther, and there are numerous villages in between. "There's no buffer, which means you can't make a defensive line," the officer said. "We can't take Bashiqa until we're ready to take Mosul. It all has to be one operation."

Mosul is a historically diverse city; its one and a half million residents formerly included Kurds, Yazidis, Turkmen, and Assyrians, but its majority had been Sunni. During Saddam Hussein's regime, the city was famous for producing skilled Baathist military officers; after the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi Army and eradicated the Baath Party, it became famous for producing skilled insurgents. Iraq's Prime Minister at the time of the American withdrawal, in 2011, was Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim with deep ties to Iran, who purged Iraq's security forces of Sunni leadership and instituted a Shiite hegemony in the government. To Mosul, Maliki dispatched Shiite soldiers and police whom many former residents have described as tyrannically sectarian. "People were upset with the Shiite security forces," Atheel al-Nujaifi, a former governor of Nineveh Province, which includes Mosul and Sinjar, told me last spring. "They mistreated people. There was a lot of corruption. Many Sunni residents of Mosul who had lived under Maliki's Army welcomed ISIS, at least in the first days."

That might help explain why, on June 10, 2014, around thirty thousand soldiers in Mosul capitulated to a group of ISIS fighters estimated to number in the hundreds—leaving behind a largely American-bought arsenal of small arms, heavy artillery, tanks, ordnance, and armored vehicles. A few weeks later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, emerged for the first time in years and delivered a speech—videotaped and published online—from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. ISIS had proclaimed the establishment of a caliphate, and Baghdadi now called on Muslims everywhere to support it.

Since then, thousands of would-be jihadists from around the world have travelled to Iraq and Syria to offer their allegiance. In Mosul, ISIS fighters have firmly embedded themselves among hundreds of thousands of civilians, and recapturing the city will require a force, or an alliance of forces, that the civilians can accept. Last April, in Erbil, I met with Fuad Hussein, Barzani's chief of staff. "There is one thing that everybody knows," he told me. "Liberating Mosul without the peshmerga is impossible. But to enter Mosul we need a partner." He added, "Sometimes, when you want to marry, it is an arranged marriage. We still don't know who our partners will be. We are still searching for them."

The Kurds have little incentive to push much closer to Mosul. Barzani's ultimate ambition is an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Most of the territory immediately south of the front is predominantly Sunni and would not be part of that envisaged state. All the same, the Kurds can't tolerate the status quo indefinitely. "Suppose ISIS is allowed to remain in Mosul," Hussein said. "That would mean that our peshmerga must always be alert and that we will always be at war. How can you live with ISIS as your neighbor? How can you sleep at night?"


The peshmerga are not the only Kurdish force fighting ISIS in Iraq. For nearly a year before the peshmerga operation in Sinjar, a rival faction had been battling ISIS largely independently in the town. The fighters belonged to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which Barzani refuses to recognize. Founded as a Marxist-Leninist independence movement in the late nineteen-seventies, the P.K.K., based in Turkey, has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government; the U.S. considers it a terrorist organization. In recent years, though, a P.K.K. affiliate in Syria has emerged as one of ISIS's boldest adversaries there, earning it support from American bombers and special-operations forces. After the peshmerga abandoned Sinjar, in 2014, the P.K.K. opened a corridor from the mountains into Kurdish-controlled Syria, enabling thousands of Yazidis to escape. Many of these refugees were subsequently armed and organized into militias, which returned to Sinjar, under the supervision of P.K.K. guerrillas, to confront ISIS in their home town.

Around then, the U.S. set up a new operations center near Erbil to orchestrate the war in northern Iraq in concert with the peshmerga and other coalition partners. Whenever the move on Mosul occurs, American and Iraqi planners anticipate a prolonged campaign of fierce urban combat. In Sinjar, the P.K.K. fighters hadn't penetrated much past the outlying neighborhoods near the base of the mountains. To reach their headquarters, we had to cross their former front line: a tall blockade of sandbags, sofas, shopping carts, and sinks and freezers packed with concrete. Small holes sized precisely for rifle muzzles had been made in the patchwork rampart. A narrow causeway of broken cinder block, mud, and twisted metal extended from the barrier. Stepping in fresh boot prints, we passed a mess of uniform and bone: a desiccated head with hair; a tibia and femur, bent at the knee, the foot still socked and shod. Dog remains lay beside the human ones. Thick slabs of asphalt tilted into a crater as big as a swimming pool, and on the far rim sat the frame of an exploded truck. Despite steel plating on the wheels and doors, the cab was obliterated. A rank corpse sat behind the melted wheel.

Outside a small bank, two teen-agers with acne were sweeping up. Their commander was a twenty-four-year-old chain-smoker who used the nom de guerre Sarkhaboon Gauda. When I told him that I was a reporter, Gauda gestured at the dead man in the truck, the crater, the dogs and bones.

"We've been here eleven months," he said.

Gauda wanted to show me how the ISIS fighters in Sinjar had defended the town for so long. He led me down a ratline that they had built by knocking holes in walls. Curtains had been strung across the streets to screen their movements. In the hallway of one house, Gauda ushered me into a hole in the floor. After an abrupt drop, the ground levelled off into a tunnel—too low to stand up in, but not so low that we had to crawl. Sandbags lined the walls; electrical cords ran along the floor and ceiling. At twenty feet or so beyond the mouth, it became too dark to see; the air was hot and muggy. I turned on my cell-phone flashlight. Smaller tunnels branched off the main one. Shop lamps and an industrial-sized air-conditioner were plugged into the cords. Around the air-conditioner lay bulky plastic sacks holding water bottles filled with urine.

"All of their positions were linked underground," Gauda said when we were outside again. "They were also digging a tunnel up the hill, toward our position. Luckily, they didn't finish in time." He said that many of the buildings were rigged with explosives, and at one point he showed me a bomb lying amid the rubble on the street: a metal cylinder connected by blue wire to four plastic jugs.

I asked Gauda what he planned to do now. Turkey had recently stepped up its bombing campaign against the P.K.K. redoubts in the eastern part of the country, where Gauda was from; unless the two sides reached a truce, he might never be able to go home. Did he have a wife and kids? Were they in Turkey? Syria? Iraq?

Gauda deflected my questions. "We'll go where we're needed," he said. "Wherever our leaders decide to send us."


In empowering the Yazidi refugees, the P.K.K. had created a new base of sympathy for its revolutionary cause; they seemed unlikely to simply give that up. I spoke with many P.K.K. fighters from Turkey and Syria who said they had no intention of leaving Sinjar. Their presence in the town raised the question: With so many rival factions and competing interests—and in the absence of a unifying national government or army (or identity)—what happens the day after a city in Iraq or Syria is liberated from ISIS? What happens a week after? A year?

This is an especially pressing concern with Mosul, where regional powers, in addition to local ones, are sure to meddle. In the early nineteen-twenties, with the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey claimed possession of the city, which the League of Nations later gave to Iraq. Although Turkey ultimately accepted the existing border, it has a history of interfering in Mosul's affairs. Turkish soldiers, defying protests from Baghdad, are currently training a group of displaced Mosul residents who aspire to serve as a permanent security force in the city once ISIS has been dislodged. The group is led by Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh Province and a longtime ally of Turkey.

"The day after the liberation of Mosul, the citizens need to see their own people patrolling the streets," Nujaifi told me when I visited his training camp last spring. Rows of green tents were pitched in an open field; half a dozen Turks supervised recruits performing drills. At the time, it all seemed harmless—lacking weapons, the out-of-shape volunteers ran around cradling imaginary ones—but last month Turkey sent a hundred and fifty troops and twenty-five tanks to the camp. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq's current Prime Minister, condemned the move as "a serious breach of Iraqi sovereignty," and President Obama personally called Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, and urged him to withdraw the forces.

Erdoğan is a conservative Sunni, and much of his Middle East policy has been geared toward opposing Shiite Iran. Perhaps the only people whom Erdoğan would less prefer to see gaining clout in Iraq and Syria than the Shiites are the P.K.K. He shares this view with Barzani. At the press conference on the hill, Barzani announced, "The peshmerga alone liberated Sinjar, and the only flag you will see raised in Sinjar will be the flag of Kurdistan." When I visited the main junction in the center of town, however, three P.K.K. flags were mounted atop an empty billboard frame in the middle of a traffic circle. The highest one bore a portrait of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader and founder of the P.K.K., who is serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison. A pillar of Öcalan's ideology is strict gender equality, both in society and on the battlefield, and about half of the P.K.K. fighters posted around the junction were women. Many of them—cigarettes in their mouths, Kalashnikovs on their backs, and grenades fastened to the sashes around their waists—looked no older than sixteen or seventeen. Shortly after we arrived, I heard one young woman yelling furiously. She was standing in the rotary, beneath the flag of Öcalan, facing several peshmerga soldiers.

"You don't talk to me!" she told them.

A moment later, a swarm of P.K.K. fighters, Yazidi militiamen, and peshmerga troops were shouting at and jostling one another. It seemed to be about the flags. The peshmerga troops appeared to want to raise theirs.

"Stop! Stop! Stop!" someone yelled.

Many of the P.K.K. fighters had unslung their rifles and were holding them at the low ready. Others were propping machine guns on bipods behind vehicles and rubble piles. A man I had just been interviewing was stretched out on his stomach, aiming into the crowd.

"Hold on!" a peshmerga soldier shouted. "Don't do this!"

"I'm going to raise our flag!" another said. "I want to raise our flag!"

"No, no, come back. Don't do it."

"Our home is destroyed, and now we're going to destroy it again?" one of the Yazidi militiamen asked. "We should be fighting ISIS, not each other!"


That night, in the mountains above Sinjar, I visited a first-aid station staffed by Kurdish doctors and paramedics as well as American and European special-operations forces. They were attending a man with a bullet wound to the head. I stood in the waiting area as the man's wife tearfully explained to one of the Americans what had happened. The man was a Sunni mukhtar, the leader of a small village outside Sinjar. Shortly after ISIS fled the area, a man—perhaps Yazidi, perhaps Kurdish—knocked at the door of the mukhtar's home and asked for him by name. When the mukhtar stepped outside, the man shot him.

Sinjar, like Mosul, was once a multi-ethnic enclave, but the spectre of reprisals will likely prevent most Sunnis from returning. One morning, as we descended the mountainside, black smoke rose below. When we reached the town, we found that most of the fires were concentrated in a residential neighborhood of well-appointed houses set back from the street behind metal gates and cinder-block walls. Everywhere, civilian men wearing traditional Yazidi headgear were loading trucks and cars with appliances, furniture, cabinetry, rolled-up carpets, kitchenware, flat-screen TVs, space heaters, air-conditioners, lamps, toys, clothes, shoes, tools, and bedding.

I asked one of them who the owners of the houses were, and he answered angrily, "We're taking our revenge on the Sunni families who helped ISIS when they came here. They killed our children. They took our women. They took infants from their mothers' breasts and murdered them. They showed us no mercy." The man slammed shut the tailgate of his truck and got behind the wheel. "Now," he said, through the rolled-down window, "I'm going somewhere else to take more stuff."

Someone emerged from a house across the street with a can of spray paint. He gave the can a shake and scrawled something on the wall.

"What does it say?" I asked my interpreter.

"Bomb," he said.

"Don't go in there," the man told us.

"Bomb" was also spray-painted on another house nearby; through the open door, we could see an explosive device on the couch. While I was looking at the device—a rectangular package wrapped in tape, wires dangling—a sedan pulled up behind us, and two men stepped out. One of them, wearing a fake-leather jacket and missing some teeth, made for the house.

"Not this one," his friend said.

"It's fine."

"Fine? There's a bomb right there."

"Don't worry, nothing will happen."

"You're going in?"

"I'm going in."

The man in the jacket entered. His friend muttered a curse, shook his head, and followed. A few minutes later, they returned to the street, lugging a refrigerator plastered with magnets—oranges, bananas, bunches of purple grapes—and lifted it onto the roof of the sedan. Meanwhile, I noticed, at the top of the road, a teen-age boy sitting in a plastic chair with a Kalashnikov across his lap.

The boy was yelling at a man testing the door of a home: "Hey, don't go in there! That's my house!"

"How was I supposed to know?" the man asked.

"It's written on the door."

The man shrugged. "I can't read." He turned down a block hemmed in on both sides by banks of old tires. Many of them had been burned; ISIS fighters throughout the city had used the smoke from tire fires to obscure their retreat. The rubber had melted away, and the steel belts lay in tangled heaps, like giant Slinkys.

"Careful!" the boy yelled. "There's an unexploded rocket down there!"

When I reached the boy, he told me that he had been in the chair for two days, guarding nine houses that belonged to his relatives. On the street were many Yazidi homes, he said. You could recognize them by the spray paint on their walls: the Arabic equivalent of "Y" for Yazidi, "S" for Sunni. I asked how the Yazidi and Sunni families had got along before Sinjar fell to ISIS. The boy pressed his two index fingers together. "We were one family," he said. He added that Sunnis in Sinjar used to bring their sons to Yazidi doctors to be circumcised, and vice-versa. "They betrayed us," he said. "When we ran away, all of our Sunni friends stayed. They were welcomed. It wasn't just ISIS—our own neighbors marked our houses 'Y' and their houses 'S.' "

I returned to the neighborhood with the Sunni houses repeatedly through the week—sometimes to find people emptying the homes of their furnishings, sometimes to find smoke and flames pouring from the windows. One day, I met a father and son sifting through the charred shell of what appeared to have been an expansive multistory home outfitted with columns and verandas. Rather than an "S" or a "Y," the front gate had been marked with a cross. The father, Issa Lahdo, a retired police officer, told me that they were one of about forty Christian families from Sinjar. Lahdo had lived in the house with his wife, his nine daughters, and the families of his two married sons. The walls were scorched; whatever hadn't been looted lay in ash.

"I'm actually happy to see it like this," Lahdo told me, although his eyes were wet with tears. "I thank God that it was only burned."

According to Lahdo, there had been three churches in Sinjar: one Syrian Orthodox, one Catholic, and one Armenian. ISIS had blown up all of them. Lahdo's children had been baptized at the Syrian Orthodox church, which Lahdo estimated to be two hundred years old. So had Lahdo, his parents, and his grandparents.

Lahdo's son Raid agreed to take me to the church. We climbed a hill past blasted vender stalls. Armed men guarded stores; armed men plundered them. Shop after shop disgorged ruined goods: clothes, groceries, cookware, automotive parts, shoes. Carloads of refugees, returning from the mountains, navigated the detritus. Raid approached a vehicle with a cross painted on its hood.

"Are you Christians?" he asked the driver.

"Yes, we're Christians."

"Where are you from?"

"We're from here."

"I'm from here—and I know all the Christians. Why do you have a cross on your car?"

The driver laughed. "O.K., we're Yazidis. We just put the cross on because we like it." He asked Raid whether he was with Asayish, a Kurdish intelligence and security service. When Raid told him no, the driver made an impatient noise and drove on.

Raid stared after them. "Maybe they stole that car."

At the top of the hill, we reached a gaping cavity that sloped into a patch of mud.

"This was our church," Raid said.

An armored bulldozer was parked on the far side of the cavity. A body lay beside it. It was so badly burned that it was impossible to judge whether it was a man or a woman. It lay rigid, like a toppled sculpture.

A small olive tree stood amid the rubble.

"That's where the garden used to be," Raid said.


No one I spoke with in Sinjar believed that Sunni civilians could have lived among the ISIS occupiers without collaborating in their crimes; nor could anyone imagine a future in which Yazidis and Christians would once again live in harmony with Sunnis. In Sinjar, it seemed that ISIS and Sunnism would forever be conflated.

But elsewhere in Iraq and Syria many Sunnis bitterly oppose ISIS. Identifying and supporting those Sunnis has become a central component of the American intervention and will be critical to retaking Mosul. The strategy is not new. In 2007, during the height of the Iraqi insurgency, the American military began enlisting Sunni tribes to combat Al Qaeda. The Awakening movement, as it was called, eventually paid and armed around a hundred thousand men; two years later, it was widely credited with reversing the momentum of the war. Although the program focussed on Anbar Province, some Sunni sheikhs from the outskirts of Mosul also participated.

Last April, I spoke with Nazhan Sakhar Salman, a leader of a prominent Sunni tribe from an area just south of Mosul, who had commanded more than three hundred Awakening fighters. We met in the lobby of a hotel in Erbil, fifty miles east of Mosul. Regal in comportment and meticulous in dress, he wore a slightly reflective suit and highly reflective shoes. Sitting erect, with both hands draped from the armrests, he turned a plastic chair into a throne.

Nazhan told me that his fortunes, along with those of many other Sunni sheikhs and their tribes, had soured after the Americans' withdrawal. "As soon as they were gone, Maliki and his government wanted to disband us," he said. "They stopped paying us. They started harassing us." The morning after Mosul fell to ISIS, a convoy of fighters arrived in Nazhan's area, a swath of small villages called Qayyarah. Many of them were locals who had belonged to Al Qaeda when Nazhan was an Awakening commander. Nonetheless, a message was conveyed to Nazhan that same day assuring him that ISIS had no quarrel with his tribe; its enemies were the Shiites.

"They waited a few weeks, and then they started arresting people," Nazhan said. "Three, four at a time. Some they executed. Others we never saw again." Nazhan and his deputies went into hiding. For several months after ISIS captured the city, the border between Mosul and Erbil remained porous; despite checkpoints on both sides, civilians came and went. In Qayyarah, former Awakening members smuggled themselves out using false papers or by disguising themselves as women in niqabs. Most left their families behind, intending to reunite with them later. At the time, few people imagined that ISIS would open up a front against the Kurds.

ISIS did so last March, advancing nearly to within mortar range of Erbil before the peshmerga regrouped and counterattacked, establishing a front line. Travel between the regions ceased. Nazhan and two other Sunni sheikhs from south of Mosul told the peshmerga that they wanted to rescue their stranded families; the peshmerga assigned them a stretch of trench within sight of their villages. Together, the sheikhs had more than a thousand men, and in April Nazhan seemed confident that an effort to liberate Qayyarah was imminent. An official from Central Command, which oversees American military actions in the Middle East, had recently told reporters that a Mosul offensive would likely take place before the summer.

"All the tribes in the area will join us when we attack," Nazhan said. "I'm certain that if I make it to Qayyarah I will have three thousand fighters by my side."

A few days later, I visited Nazhan's section of the front. Following a dirt road through meadowland and abandoned wheat farms on the east side of the Tigris River, we arrived at a ten-foot berm behind a trench that was at least as deep. Beyond the trench were brown fields dotted with yellow flowers—and, beyond the fields, Qayyarah. We stopped at a post overseen by Nazhan's older brother Isded. The day before, Isded told me, he had received word that three hundred people in his village, Haj Ali, had been executed. He took out his phone, pulled up a text message, and showed me a list of names. "This one was an Awakening member," he said. "This one was police. This one was a soldier. This one was a civilian."

When I asked how far away Haj Ali was, Isded pointed at a cluster of silhouetted buildings several miles to the east. On clear mornings, he said, they could hear the muezzin from their mosque calling their relatives to prayer.

Farther up the line, another commander, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Malik, told me that nineteen of his cousins had been killed by ISIS in Haj Ali. Abu Malik said that in the past decade thousands of men from Qayyarah had worked with the U.S. or national-security forces; when ISIS came, "they had a database," Abu Malik said. "They knew who everybody was." Still, most of the Sunni villagers allowed themselves to believe that they were not in danger.

"ISIS was telling everyone, 'We're all brothers,' " Abu Malik said. "They let people smoke and drink. At the checkpoints, they distributed presents to the kids. They ate with people, drank tea with people. They were very nice—they didn't bother anyone. Then, a week or so after they arrived, they started confiscating weapons. They told us it didn't matter if we'd been with the Awakening or the Army or the police—if we gave up our weapons, we'd be forgiven. Ten days later, they started taking people. Everything changed. They took my cousin. My brothers dug holes in the fields and hid. I was at my house when they came for me. It was afternoon. I saw two Hyundai Santa Fes pull up outside, and I ran out the back and jumped over the wall. That was the last time I saw my family."

Abu Malik had three wives and eight children in Qayyarah. A Sharia judge, declaring him an infidel, had recently annulled his marriages to two younger wives and married off one of them, against her will, to an ISIS fighter. When I asked how he knew this, he said that the fighters in Qayyarah had his phone number and often sent him taunting text messages. Abu Malik's remaining wife sometimes snuck onto the roof at night and called. "I talked to her yesterday," Abu Malik said. "She and the children have nothing to eat. She told me she can't take it anymore. She wants to kill herself."

Suddenly, a young fighter who'd been listening to us burst out: "I can't take it anymore! I'm ready to put on a suicide vest and blow myself up! They're killing our families fifteen minutes away from here!" Tears streaked his face. "We're helpless," he said. "We sit here and stare at the other side and hear the news, and there's nothing we can do."

Abu Malik nodded. "The bottom line is, if we wait much longer, all of our families will be wiped out."


When I returned to Nazhan's outpost this November, nothing had changed: the front line south of Mosul, and the Sunnis deployed there, had not moved. Nazhan brought me to the trench in a luxury Land Cruiser accessorized with shaggy seat covers. He had replaced his expensive suit and shoes with jungle fatigues and combat boots. "The men are not happy," he said as we plowed through the muddy fields. It was already the season of cold rains. "We don't understand why we're still here."

Peshmerga troops deployed to the front regularly rotate home, seldom staying for more than a few consecutive weeks. But most of Nazhan's men had nowhere else to go. They were exhausted and dirty, lacked showers and toilets, and slept in flimsy tents meant for a refugee camp.

My visit coincided with that of a government representative from Baghdad who had come to dispense salaries. Nazhan called his fighters into formation, and the representative, clipboard in hand, took attendance. Outside of Kurdistan, much of the fighting against ISIS in Iraq has been done by the Popular Mobilization Forces, a federation of militias that initially rallied to defend the country's cities after the collapse of the Army and police in Mosul. The militias are overwhelmingly Shiite and, most analysts agree, beholden to Iran. While they have made some gains on the battlefield—they helped capture the city of Tikrit last spring—they have also been accused of committing war crimes against Sunni civilians and inflaming the sectarian animosities that contributed to the rise of ISIS. Recognizing that any sustained victory over ISIS, in Mosul and beyond, will depend on Sunni participation, the U.S. has pushed the Iraqi government to create a Sunni national guard that would finance and formalize the status of tribal fighters across the country. Shiite lawmakers have blocked the necessary legislation for the national guard, but Prime Minister Abadi has begun incorporating some former Awakening fighters into the Popular Mobilization Forces—among them Nazhan and his fellow-sheikhs on the Kurdish front south of Mosul.

As soon as the official from Baghdad confirmed that the names on the payroll corresponded to real people, one of the fighters addressed him.

"We can't sit here and watch them slaughter our families any longer," he said. The fighter was nineteen and the son of a former senior intelligence officer. Earlier, he'd told me that, two weeks after ISIS reached Qayyarah, several gunmen had shown up at his house. They had handcuffed him, his mother, and his three younger brothers, made them kneel, and beheaded his father in front of them.

"We weren't even allowed to bury him," he said. "They threw his body in the river." He escaped a couple of nights later, but his mother and brothers were still in Qayyarah. They called him every few months. "My brothers aren't normal anymore, because of what they saw," he said. "When I talk to them, they say, 'Where are you? When are you coming? First we lost our father, and now you.' "

The official from Baghdad told the fighter, "A lot of people don't have a salary. At least you have a salary."

"We don't need salaries," Nazhan said. "What we need is to rescue our relatives."

"It's not up to me," the official said. "We have to wait for them to decide."

"We've been waiting for a year!" one of the fighters yelled. "Day after day, they are killing our people. Day after day, they are displacing our people. Day after day, they are violating our honor. We can't wait anymore! We're sick of waiting!"

"We have to wait for orders," the official said. "Mosul is so complicated, you can't imagine. Every group has its own agenda. Your area is not the only area under ISIS. We have to liberate them all."

Nazhan opened his hands. "Always you tell us the same thing: Wait. But wait for what? The Shiites are fighting. The problem is that Baghdad doesn't trust us. They don't see the difference between us and ISIS."

"That's not true."

"Yes, it is," Nazhan said.

"Beyond this line, the Americans decide," the official said. "If we don't coördinate with them, we won't succeed. Look how they liberated Sinjar. Everything has to be coordinated."


For Nazhan and his men, Sinjar offered another lesson: the longer ISIS is allowed to control an area, the more atrocities they will visit on the people living there. In Ramadi, civilian survivors of the ISIS occupation have recounted being starved and used as human shields. The group advertises its brutality with highly produced videos of gruesome executions. But a full reckoning of its crimes in Mosul and other major population centers won't be possible until those places have been recaptured.

While I was in Sinjar, a suspected mass grave was discovered where dozens of elderly Yazidi women were believed to have been buried. Local Yazidis thought they knew what had happened. On August 15, 2014, shortly after capturing Sinjar, ISIS fighters had gone to Kocho, a Yazidi village several miles away, and demanded that its residents convert to Islam. At least eighty men were subsequently executed. All the female villagers were then brought to the Shingal Technical Institute, which had been a branch of a Kurdish university, east of town off Highway 47. The young women and girls were separated from the elderly, shipped to ISIS-held cities in Iraq and Syria, and distributed among fighters to serve as sex slaves. The elderly, deemed unsuitable for sexual bondage, were murdered and dumped in a dry man-made fishpond.

When we visited the institute—a large concrete structure that had been hit by an air strike, each floor collapsed upon the one below it—no one appeared to be around. We drove on and soon spotted a lone peshmerga soldier standing in a square pit four or five feet deep. His hands were in his pockets, and he was looking down at something. I climbed into the pit with him. What he was looking at were bones: broken femurs, a jaw, a cracked skull. Here and there were other small piles of remains. There were clothes as well—a scarf, a shoe. Later, a Kurdish official told me that most of the victims were still buried. The bones and clothes on the surface had probably risen with the rains. Or, the official said, dogs had dug them up.

The soldier's name was Rashid; he came from a Yazidi village a few miles away. He had taken part in the offensive and was currently stationed at a large grain silo in the center of Sinjar. His relatives had lived near the institute, and his commanding officer had given him permission to check on their house. I asked whether he knew anyone who was buried here. "A fifth of my relatives are gone," he said. "We lost forty-four members of my family. I don't know if any of them are here. They might be."

When ISIS stormed Rashid's village, his wife was home with their infant daughter and eleven- and thirteen-year-old sons, but Rashid was out. As panicked villagers left on foot and by car, he sprinted to his house. He arrived to find that his sons had already run away. He fled with his wife and daughter into the mountains, where they have been living ever since. Rashid joined a new all-Yazidi unit in the peshmerga in December of 2014. Although he hadn't seen his sons since the day they were separated, he told me that he knew they were alive. "They're in a prison in Tal Afar," he said. "Ten days ago, someone they were with had a phone. I spoke to them." We were still standing in the fishpond, looking at the bones. Ridiculously, I said, "So they're O.K.?"

"What we've heard is that they are sending our sons to the front line," Rashid said. "The P.K.K. told us they saw many young Yazidi boys who were being used as suicide attackers. They give them drugs, point weapons at their backs, and make them march forward with grenades in their hands."

There are thought to be more mass graves in Sinjar. On the other side of town, twenty miles from the Syrian border, the peshmerga had raised a berm on the highway, near a crossroads littered with fragments from two exploded cars. MILAN launchers—guided antitank missiles supplied to the Kurds by Germany—pointed south like telescopes. "They came yesterday, from Syria," a peshmerga general said of the cars. "When they saw our trench, they turned south. Our tank hit them."

While we were talking, a soldier appeared and presented two civilian men to the general. One identified himself as a representative from a Kurdish organization documenting genocide. "There's a grave over there," he said, pointing past the berm toward a farmhouse a few hundred feet away. In the fields just in front of the farmhouse were agricultural sprinklers with trusses and wheels. Under the sprinklers, seven low mounds of soil peaked above the grass.

"No one can go beyond this trench," the general said.

The second man was from another Yazidi village, to the south; around the same time that Rashid lost his sons on the west side of Sinjar, his village had been overrun. Hordes of fleeing Yazidis had crossed the intersection where we stood on their way to the Sinjar Mountains. "There were ISIS fighters coming up this road from Syria," the man recalled. "They were shooting at us with Kalashnikovs and machine guns." He and others made it to the foothills, but many were unable to escape. "I saw a lot of families killed in this place," he said. "At this crossroads, in these fields, and also over there, in that house." He pointed at the farmhouse, the sprinklers, the low mounds. "They had water," he said. "People went there for water and got trapped."


A few days later, on the front line south of Mosul, Nazhan drew a map in the dirt and explained to me how he and his men, even if they weren't allowed to attack Qayyarah, could at least organize an escape for their families, collecting them midway across the no man's land. All they needed was air support. At one point during our conversation, a plane buzzed overhead. We squinted skyward. "It's just noise," one of Nazhan's deputies muttered. "They never do anything."

That wasn't entirely true. The U.S. military coördinates daily air strikes across northern Iraq from a command center in Erbil. Although Nazhan's men bemoaned the paucity of air strikes in Qayyarah—and claimed to have supplied the Americans with a detailed roster of targets, compiled from their sources on the ground—that night we witnessed a heavy bombardment. We were in a rearward position when the payload dropped. By the time we reached the trench, some minutes later, the jets were gone, but the horizon was still aglow. Fires pulsed like a midnight sun several miles to the west.

One of Nazhan's deputies had a radio tuned to a frequency on which ISIS fighters in Qayyarah were communicating.

"Tell them to find cover," one of them said.

"What time is it?" another asked.

"Why don't you get a watch?" the first one said.

The deputy with the radio sighed. "That guy is always asking for the time," he said.

Nazhan told me that the fires came from the Qayyarah oil field, and a U.S. Army spokesman later confirmed that the strike had hit two gas and separation plants as well as a refinery. The sortie was part of a new campaign, Operation Tidal Wave II, that targets critical petroleum infrastructure in ISIS-held Iraq and Syria. (The original Operation Tidal Wave was an effort to deprive Nazi Germany of oil revenue during the Second World War.) Although the Treasury Department estimates that illicit oil exports generate about half a billion dollars a year for ISIS, the Obama Administration had previously been reluctant to bomb the industry for fear of inflicting excessive civilian casualties. That reluctance, evidently, has subsided. Since the commencement of Operation Tidal Wave II, in late October, hundreds of fuel tankers, whose drivers are considered noncombatants by the Pentagon, have been taken out by American and allied warplanes.

The broader intervention to which Operation Tidal Wave II belongs also appears to be intensifying. In October, the Obama Administration announced the deployment of a small number of special-operations forces to Syria. In early December, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter informed Congress of a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" that will "conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture leaders" of ISIS in Iraq. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th and the shooting of fourteen people in San Bernadino, California, on December 2nd, Obama has come under increasing pressure to intervene more aggressively in the Middle East. Leading Republican Presidential candidates have advocated killing the families of ISIS members, carpet-bombing parts of Iraq and Syria, and deploying American ground troops on a large scale; none of these proposals have elicited as much popular derision as Obama's perceived passivity.


On December 16th, a month after losing Sinjar, ISIS launched coördinated attacks against the Kurdish lines north and east of Mosul. Its targets included the section of front that I had visited in Bashiqa, where a Kurdish-held ridge overlooks an ISIS-held town. Several peshmerga soldiers died repelling the assault. That day, a barrage of rockets also struck the Turkish training camp, killing three Iraqi fighters and wounding four Turkish soldiers. Nevertheless, in a speech two weeks later, Prime Minister Abadi declared, "2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when ISIS's presence in Iraq will be terminated. We confidently say to our people that we are coming to liberate Mosul, and it will be the fatal and final blow to ISIS."

For Nazhan, and for many other citizens of northern Iraq, that day cannot come soon enough. One night when I was in Sinjar, a hundred and twenty Kurdish families who had spent the past year living under ISIS appeared in the fields on the other side of a trench. The sector was controlled by the Commando Battalion of the Kurdish Zeravani Brigade, a peshmerga special-operations force. By the time we reached the commandos, the following afternoon, the families had been transferred to the custody of Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence and security service.

"These people have been living with ISIS for more than a year," Lieutenant Handren Masoud, the battalion commander, told me. "That is very suspicious."

A truck pulled up, and a young soldier hopped out, looking distressed. Masoud asked him a question; the soldier shook his head. His name was Raid Babawad, and he was from Kun Ruvi, a small village to the south. Eight years ago, Babawad had moved with his parents to a town farther north; his older sister Rahima had stayed in the village with her husband. In 2014, Rahima had become pregnant with her sixth child, and Babawad's mother had returned to Kun Ruvi to be with her for the birth. A week later, ISIS took Sinjar, and the family was trapped. Babawad promptly joined the peshmerga, making his way to the commandos.

"When he heard about the Sinjar operation, he begged to come with us," Masoud said. "I could see he was in pain."

"The reason I became a commando was so that I could save my family," Babawad explained.

Earlier that day, he'd contacted his brother-in-law in Kun Ruvi by phone and arranged to rendezvous with his relatives in Domiz, where he could insure that the peshmerga would allow them to cross. They'd spoken as his brother-in-law was leaving Kun Ruvi with Rahima, their children, and Babawad's mother—but they never arrived. Now his brother-in-law's phone was switched off.

"I just talked to someone else in the village," Babawad said. "He told me that ISIS had captured everyone who was leaving. He said they're all in the school."

Babawad took his phone out and dialled his brother-in-law's number. The line was dead.

I returned to the commandos' position the next morning and found Babawad cleaning his rifle. He'd spoken with his brother-in-law during the night. His mother and sister were alive. ISIS fighters had stopped their car and given them a warning: if they tried to leave again, they would be shot.

All the roads from Kun Ruvi were blocked. For now, no one could get out.


war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict

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