“The road to Mosul is paved with bad intentions.” The words are too pleased with themselves for prose, but in my television script they seem to fit the pictures. The road in question stretches apocalyptically ahead, scalded black by burning tyres and oil drums, although the smokescreen meant to shield Islamic State fighters from air strikes has now cleared. Beneath us we can still feel the coalition’s bombs, like the pounding of a giant’s footsteps, pulverising the city’s outskirts.
From behind their earth wall fortifications, Isis fighters send up a surveillance drone over our heads. It was probably looted or even bought from a toyshop. Iraqi special forces – a bunch of friendly lads knocking about in black T-shirts – shoot haphazardly at the drone from the rooftop where I am standing but it returns home safe.
There was never much in this empty, smouldering village in the first place. Now there is even less, though a Russian T-54 tank belonging to the jihadis sits hidden in somebody’s living room and an Isis tunnel stretches for hundreds of metres along the back gardens of abandoned houses. Waving at me from one of these houses is the BBC correspondent Ian Pannell.
Ian and his team have been living here rough. He looks tired and has a helmet clipped to his flak jacket. We shake hands. In my sensible M&S trousers and shoes, I feel like Alan Bennett meeting Ernest Hemingway. What am I doing in Iraq when I could be sorting out the recycling on my doorstep, like everybody else?
Ian isn’t one of them, but I can’t recall so many journalists so shaken by fear as on this assignment. Chief among the dangers are Isis suicide vehicles: Mad Max contraptions, hell-bent on hitting convoys of Humvees often too sluggish to escape. “Isis are not just willing to die,” says one of my colleagues who survives four such attempts. “They want to die.”
“I thought I wanted to be the first into Mosul,” my colleague adds. “Now I am not so sure.”
In the oil city of Kirkuk, the jihadists mimic the terror tactics they used in Paris a year ago by sending squads of gunmen and bombers to cause synchronised mayhem on our side of the front line. The shooting begins before dawn and lasts late into the night. At one point, a member of my team rugby tackles me to the ground so I can avoid the bullets. Dozens are killed, and the city’s Kurdish governor brushes past me with what I decide is embarrassment when I try to talk to him about it later.
Kirkuk is not what the authorities want us to report on, and remains disputed territory: a cauldron of Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen tension. In fact, securing Mosul is just the latest proficiency test in a long course of nation-building that Iraq may still fail.
I take a photograph of Iraqi soldiers making victory signs and waving Shia flags as a huge column of their Humvees moves towards the next village. “Do Sunnis in Mosul really want this kind of liberation?” I ask on Twitter. A squall of protest follows. I’m accused of being far more sectarian than the Iraqis themselves. But my point remains: the area’s liberators are an uneasy mix of mostly Shia government troops and Kurdish fighters, along with Shia, Sunni and Christian militiamen. The Shias want revenge for Isis massacres committed further south and it isn’t clear that Iraq’s prime minister can control them.
Add to this the unpredictable agenda of the neo-Ottoman president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has troops in northern Iraq and has come dangerously close to reigniting a territorial claim to Mosul, which he hasn’t forgiven Britain for invading in 1918. We’ve waited almost a hundred years, but what used to be known as the “Mosul Question” is front-page news again. The trick in recapturing it now is as much about restraining friends as defeating enemies.
Over dinner one evening, we return to the familiar question of whether the 2003 invasion “created” Isis. I prefer “unleashed” – even though, 13 years on, I think our talent for self-flagellation has gone too far. This is not to let ourselves off the hook, but too often we deny Iraqis any responsibility for their own affairs.
That said, will our talent for dropping bombs once again surpass our desire to rebuild, leaving the jihadists to recruit and rebrand in places even more hopeless than they were before?
I spend most of my time here reporting what journalists cynically call “bang bang”, though one day I make a short and emotional film about an Iraqi refugee and his wife going home.
I first met Father John Tarachee sunning himself on a bench in the Christian town of Bartella two years ago, just before Isis invaded. An Orthodox priest, he still worships in Aramaic, the very language used by Christ. Now we are driving him back across the plains of biblical Nineveh, past flattened houses and army checkpoints, into liberated Bartella.
Father John owns 4,000 books, and to his distress many of them are strewn across the floor of his home. It has been ransacked from top to bottom; a picture of the Last Supper survives on top of a pile of clothes ripped from his wife Salima’s wardrobe. She throws sweets at Iraqi troops outside the house and ululates her congratulations, even though we all know the looting probably isn’t finished yet.
The bell tower of Father John’s church has been knocked down and much of the interior destroyed. We can hear gunfire and air strikes beyond, so we join him in rescuing as many giant Aramaic manuscripts as we can, stuffing them into the back of our bulletproof car. And then we leave quickly.
Inside his church, Father John had talked of his Christian flock returning. Though I believe some will, the priest is noticeably lost for words on the long drive to safety further north.
Jonathan Rugman is the foreign affairs correspondent for “Channel 4 News”