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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

A savage battle

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By Ahmad Al-Rubaye

MOSUL—I have covered nearly the entire nine months that Iraqi forces spent retaking Mosul from Islamic State jihadists. I would spend weeks at the front with the soldiers, witnessing the killing, smelling the stench of death. I was gone so much that when I would come home for a few days of rest, my two-year-old daughter no longer recognized me. Why go through all that? I am Iraqi and I saw it as my duty to show to the outside world what was happening here.

To me, the battle for Mosul was the most important over the past 14 years, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, because I think it is the beginning of the end of the Islamic State, the brutal extremists who at one point took over two-thirds of Iraq and were threatening the capital Baghdad.

Covering the battle took its toll on me psychologically. I saw so much killing. The smell of death was always present, sometimes for days on end.

Iraqi federal police members celebrate in the Old City of Mosul on July 9, 2017 after the government’s announcement of the liberation of the embattled city. AFP

Mosul was an especially savage battle. The militants were surrounded in an area where they had been entrenched for several years. The presence of civilians made it even more bloody. Often I would witness fighting between Iraqi forces and IS forces in small alleyways. I would see bodies of IS fighters still wearing their suicide belts, bodies of civilians starting to decompose.

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Fear was ever present during the fighting. Fear is natural. You’re in the middle of the battle, so there’s always a danger that you will be killed. The journalists were always on alert to avoid snipers, who were highly trained and very skilled and seemed to target journalists. Then there was the danger of improvised explosive devices planted in alleyways, buildings and cars.

On some days I imagined myself going home wounded or dead. Once in the Old City, we were trapped by IS fighters in a spot for seven hours. We all faced the fact that we may not come out alive, but thank God reinforcements eventually came and the IS militants fled.

You saw and felt the fear when civilians would flee their homes and walk toward Iraqi forces. Those poor people. They hadn’t seen government forces in more than three years. During those years, they were living under the cruelty of the Islamic State militants, who were telling them that the government forces would come and kill them and rape their women. So obviously they were afraid. Of everyone and everything.

When you cover so much carnage, there are so many scenes that stick in your mind long after you’ve lived through them. I will never forget the Yazidis when IS got to Sinjar mountain in 2014, trapping thousands on the mountain top and forcing scores to flee. I saw some heartbreaking scenes in Dohuk, where women and children were sleeping in the open. One woman gave birth under a bridge, with her husband standing over her, holding her IV solution. That scene always pops into my head now every time I’m in a hospital or medical center.

Another scene is of a man carrying a six-year-old boy who had been hit by a sniper’s bullet in Ein Jahesh area west of Mosul. He walked up to us, put his son on the ground and started to sob. After he calmed down a bit, he told us his story.

“I live in a village nearby. I was fleeing IS fighters with my wife and two boys. They shot and killed my wife. I left her body where it was and went back to our house. When night fell, I decided to try to escape again with my two children. On the way, a sniper shot and killed one of my children, so I buried him in a dark place on the road.”

Trouble was he buried the son who was alive. Both of the boys were covered in blood and the one alive was in a deep sleep. The father was so tired and so scared, and it was so dark, that he chose the wrong son. He didn’t realize his mistake until it was too late. We later learned that he had gone mad.

Scenes like this still haunt me. Especially when I am sitting alone with my thoughts.

Although the IS had been driven out of most of Mosul, they still control pockets in the city, and in the rest of Iraq, like the Anbar province. I will cover battles to retake these places. And once there is no more IS in Iraq, I will go back to my normal coverage of the country.

I have been covering what has been happening in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And the Mosul battle was just one chapter, albeit an important one, in this story. The battle was a chapter of a bigger war and it is with sadness that I think that this war is not yet over; there will be more chapters.

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