Dispatches from the frontline: Bernard-Henri Lévy on the road to Mosul

The French's philosopher's documentary, Peshmerga, followed the Kurds fighting Islamic State in northern Iraq. Now, he and his team are back in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Return to Kurdistan. My first move is to go into the hills around Mount Zartak to gather my thoughts in the spot where Maghdid Harki, the young, white-haired general who was one of the heroes of Peshmerga, spent his last moments. Nothing has changed. Not the sandbags that were too flimsy to protect him. Not his bunker which, as he liked to say, was no better fortified than those of his men. Those men have kept his water bottle hanging in its place on the wall near the door, still containing the last gulp of water that he had been about to drink. The only difference is that American special forces now occupy the bunker.

Through binoculars a US soldier scans the valley in which the human bombs of Islamic State may appear at any moment. Another stands behind a telescope trained 20 kilometers further away on the outskirts of Mosul. A third, with long, blond hair and an Errol Flynn moustache, recovers a drone that has just landed at our feet in a cloud of dust. A fourth who looks like an intellectual (reminding me of a character from Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead — based in part on his Second World War experience with the 112th cavalry), sits under a canopy deciphering the data coming in on his computer. A fifth, the highest in rank, from Tennessee, passes on the intelligence. Who are these young Americans, oppressed by the heat and squinting at the light like blind men blinking in the dark? With Mosul only a stone’s throw away, they are the leading edge of the coalition that has finally decided, in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, to take the capital of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

                                     ***

I am in Sheikh Amir in the al-Khazir zone. Sheikh Amir is the last liberated village before the beleaguered Christian city of Qaraqosh, which IS captured in 2014. Three Toyotas come to a screeching halt, disgorging a squad of men in mismatched black uniforms — definitely not the Peshmerga.

“What are you doing here?” demands General Hajar, with whom I had travelled from Irbil. “You shouldn’t be here!”  

“This is our land!” says an ill-shaven man with a menacing look who seems to be the leader of the group.

“No,” says Hajar, gesturing toward a distant stand of prefabricated shelters that, from the road, we had taken for a refugee camp. “That’s where you should be. The accords are clear: you’re not supposed to leave your camp unless you’re attacking.”

“To hell with you!” chimes in another of the men in black. “We’re home wherever we are.”

As Hajar ups the ante and the confrontation threatens to turn ugly, the leader mumbles a half-hearted apology and, after ordering his bunch back into their pickups, heads off in the direction of the camp, where we can make out three helicopters landing. It all took place very quickly. But the men in black, we now know, were among the thousands of Shiite militiamen that Baghdad has hastily incorporated into the Iraqi army. And the incident, however minor, symbolises the tensions among the participants (the Peshmerga on the one hand; Baghdad’s majority Shiite army on the other), called upon to liberate the Islamic State’s Berlin.

                                    ***

Another sign. A few kilometers farther on, we are in the Christian village of Manguba. Here, IS put up little resistance. In retreat, its militants left behind explosives hidden in fizzy drink bottles, petrol cans, and sometimes even Korans. Anwar, a Christian officer in the Peshmerga, is one of the few who risk going out to see what remains of his house. He arranges to rejoin us at a nearby spot, the highest in the village, which, to judge from the punctured football ball and the marbles mingled with spent cartridges, must have been a playground before becoming the unit’s lookout post.

“It’s terrible,” he tells us on his return. “There’s nothing left of my house, and they torched the church.” Then, choking back a sob: “These bastards have left and, God willing, they won’t come back. But then what? Who will be responsible for protecting our community? We have a Christian brigade training with the Peshmerga, but what will become of it after the victory? Under whose command will it be then?”

Encouraged by questions from my friend, the author Gilles Hertzog, Anwar speaks his mind plainly. Neither he nor any of the Christians in the Qaraqosh region has any confidence in the Iraqi government. He won’t bring his wife and children back, he says, unless the Kurds, and the Kurds alone, are protecting the Plain of Nineveh which runs north and east of Mosul. In what form, we ask? As a province? An autonomous zone under Kurdish mandate? Does he think that the Iraqis or the Americans on Mount Zartak will agree to such a thing? He shrugs. For soldiers of God, life and salvation are non-negotiable.

                                        ***

Hassan al-Sham. Near the Christian town of Bartallah. The same landscape of charred earth, the wreckage of suicide trucks, and lingering fires from torched fuel depots. Suddenly, right in front of me, is a big hole. A well, I think at first. Wrong. There is a ladder in the hole, which my cameraman and I climb down behind a member of the bomb squad.

Three metres down I discover a tunnel one metre wide with an arched ceiling and cement walls interspersed with crude masonry in which it is possible to stand upright. After walking tentatively for a hundred metres by the light of the bomb technician’s flashlight, we come upon a passage perpendicular to the one we are in. We decide not enter because we can make out bundles of plastic explosive and contact wires, and on each side of the tunnel, rooms filled with a jumble of dirty mattresses. Then, again symmetrically arranged, a twin command center in which someone has left behind a pile of newspapers in Arabic. Among them is an eight-page black-and-white publication, a bulletin for IS fighters entitled The News. On the front page, under a photo of a man being beheaded, the headline: “How we identify traitors.” Inside, an article on a terrorist operation in the Sinai; an “analysis” of the “unlimited rights” of a shahid who has rid the world of a kafir; and a report on the presence of sleeper cells in Kirkuk. On page two, a strange roundup of the past year: “1,031 news reports, 110 infographics, 50 maps, and 112 executions of traitors.”

If the enemy took the trouble to dig this tunnel in a forlorn village, what are we likely to find in Mosul? What lacework of traps and pitfalls? What secret, subterranean city designed for what sort of dirty war?

                                 ***

We are on the road again heading due north to the outskirts of Dohuk, 13 kilometers from the Mosul dam. The man whom we have come to see is Rawan Barzani, the younger brother of the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and the commander of the first battalion of the Kurdish special forces. The base where he receives us is no more than 300 metres from the front line. In his bunker, furnished with a simple table and spartan bed, I observe this impressive officer. He explains in perfect English, against a background of mortar shelling, his theory that the enemy comprises; “loonies” (the drivers of suicide vehicles); “rats” (the denizens of the tunnels); and “attack dogs” (who he believes will offer fierce resistance).

Why is a soldier of his rank so exposed, so close to the combat zone that he can only risk a few seconds in the open for a photo? There is the legendary courage of the Kurdish commanders who place themselves in front of their men. There is his name, which could expose him to suspicions of nepotism if he didn’t prove himself with acts of bravery. The main answer lies in his location — he is stationed at one of IS's key strategic positions, a few kilometers from an immense dam that, if sabotaged, would flood the entire region as far as Mosul and beyond to Baghdad. The coalition has no choice. It has no use for men in black or Sunni tribesmen hastily recruited for walk-on parts. It needs serious, seasoned soldiers to pass behind enemy lines and carry out bold attacks. And, at their head, it needs a grandson of the founder of the Kurdish nation, the father of the Peshmerga, Mustafa Barzani.

                              ***

An envoy from the general staff comes looking for us during the night. We are to head east toward Nawaran, where the taking of Bashiqa, the last linchpin before Mosul, is to start. The usual crush of tanks, armoured vehicles, and Toyotas. Then, at the first glimmer of dawn, two drones, similar to the one that dropped a bomb two weeks ago on the French camp in Irbil: but this time the Peshmerga, in a hail of fire from Kalashnikovs and 12.7 machine guns, destroy them before they can touch down. We slip into the last of the five armoured personnel carriers that are headed for the front. Our route winds through a landscape of hamlets, warehouses, and ghostly houses from which we expect a suicide bomber to emerge at any moment.

A sniper. Our gunner at his turret takes him out. And another, whose shot grazes our lead cameraman, Camille Lotteau. This one escapes, disappearing into the gloom. A spasm of anxiety at the sound of something striking our vehicle’s armour. Another when we learn through walkie-talkie exchanges with the excavators ahead of us that the road is mined — we will have to find a new route across the empty terrain. Two hours are spent driving nearly blind, with no other guidance but that of the local villager riding on the lead bulldozer. A journey of jolts and swerves in the dust, all to travel the eight kilometers that separate us from the fringes of the village of Fazlia, which the column has been ordered to retake.


Bernard Henri-Levy (centre) with Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. Credit: Ala Hoshyar Tayyeb

                             ***

The following sequence is all recorded by our second cameraman Ala Tayyeb — operational command orders the vehicle I’m in to turn back. The personnel carriers and T55 tanks encircle the village. The men get out, are joined by an elite Zeravani unit, and advance in the open. Suddenly, shots burst forth from houses and an olive grove that had appeared abandoned. Over his walkie-talkie, the colonel in command requests air support. The voice at the other end of the line promises it within minutes, as is the norm. The shooting becomes more intense — jihadists surge out of the olive grove and surround the Peshmerga on three sides. Seven Kurdish soldiers are hit. Those that their comrades haul behind the armoured carriers are targeted by snipers. When two of the assailants raise a white flag and Ardalan Khasrawi, who also appeared in Peshmerga, approaches to accept their surrender, he finds another trap. The two men open fire and seriously wound Khasrawi. Orders and counterorders. Total confusion. Should the vehicles form a circle? Should they spread out? The fact is that for the two and a half hours the ambush lasts, for the interminable minutes of hell on earth during which the Kurdish commander never stops pleading for air support and never stops hearing that it is coming, nothing comes. The unit is left to fend for itself, abandoned by the gods and by its allies. Only by their own strength do the Kurds overcome the jihadists and liberate the village.

                     ***

Two hours later, we are with President Barzani at his camp of Mount Zartak, which lies at the end of a winding road protected by US special forces. I had asked to see him. It soon becomes clear that he has a message to pass on. Yes, in the Arab villages that it is taking, his army is conducting itself in an exemplary manner. No, that army does not intend, at least for the time being, to enter Mosul proper, a job that the allied accords have reserved for the Iraqi army. Yes, again, he has a plan for the “day after,” and he deplores the fact that his partners, in their haste to be done with this before the US election, did not heed him more closely. But his face betrays nothing. The same dark eyes but devoid of their usual mischief.

The commanders and dignitaries seated around the makeshift shed that serves as his HQ do not look any more overjoyed. He says hardly a word when I praise the courage of his soldiers. He avoids the question when I ask if he the prospect that haunted him when we last spoke in September, the specter of a Shiite corridor running through Mosul from Baghdad to Syria, has been dispelled. When Hertzog tells him the story of the Christians who have confidence only in the KRG, he is terse: “It will be up to them to decide and up to the international community to assume its responsibilities — or not.” The truth, which I learned a few hours later from his chief advisor, is that the president spent the hours of the battle for Fazlia in communication with the American ambassador in Iraq, demanding air support for his troops. The reason for his dark mood during our interview is that he felt abandoned by his allies — and almost ready to accept that he has fulfilled his part of the bargain and that, for him, the war is over.

                                              ***

Why didn’t the promised air support arrive? Why did no aircraft take off from the bases in Irbil or Qayyarah? Why, when an Apache helicopter had, at that same moment, come to the rescue of a mortally wounded American soldier nearby, was another not found to aid the trapped Peshmerga fighters? Some in Washington, London, and Paris will pin the tragic failure on the chain of command. Others will point to the change in itinerary, when the column realised that the road was mined and had to find another route. But here in Irbil the popular explanation is less forgiving. We are the best, the Kurds say. We were moving rapidly from one victory to another, while the Iraqi army couldn’t even hold two of the villages it had just captured. But our western allies were listening selectively. They wanted success to be equally apportioned among all parties: Kurds, the majority Shiite Iraqi army, and the Sunni militiamen designed to reassure the people of Mosul. Is it true that the West sought to create such a balance? Was this what lay behind the distribution of roles testily negotiated with, in particular, Baghdad and its Iranian backers? Does America’s commitment to the conflict hinge on an unspoken understanding not to let the Peshmerga move too fast or gain an advantage that would cost too much later on — the price being the independence of Kurdistan and a resulting “destabilisation” of Iraq and the region? Many Kurdish officials believe so. As, indeed, do I. And if that is true, it would not necessarily have been a bad thing from the allies perspective for our column to have been rubbed out in Fazliya. 

                                           ***

This explanation may seem too simplistic to some. And I am sure that western governments would deny it if asked. But I do remember one of Barack Obama’s predecessors, President George HW Bush, in 1995 sending the late Richard Holbrooke to warn President Izetbegovic of Bosnia that he would cease to benefit from American air cover if he persisted in his intemperate goal of entering Banja Luka — the scene of much of the systematic ethnic cleaning that occurred during the war — which was then under Serbian control. And we all remember the trouble that a certain General de Gaulle had in obtaining from another American president, Franklin D Roosevelt, the right to have a Free French division enter insurgent Paris in August 1944 as part of the allied force liberating France. Such an explanation may not be too absurd to ascribe to allied powers locked into their old sovereign schemas — ready to please one newly rehabilitated power (Iran) and preserve another pseudo-nation (Iraq). It also serves their aim of avoiding becoming overly indebted to the Kurdish people who have for a century played the fall guy in western schemes, and would not shrink from claiming their fair share of the fruits of victory. If such were the nature of the powers’ great game here, if one were to persist in asking the Peshmerga to open the doors to Mosul but not to enter it, then the moral defeat of IS would be much less certain than it now appears.

Bernard-Henri Lévy’s documentary, Peshmerga, was an Official Selection at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy