I have just returned from Mosul, where the coalition battle to retake this northern Iraqi city and its environs from ISIS has been under way since October. With a television crew, I passed through several neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city, reaching Al-Zohur, one of the front lines along which elite Iraqi units are preparing to move on to the Tigris. Here are some impressions.
• The contrast between the embattled cities of Mosul and Aleppo in Syria. To be sure, the neighborhoods we visited are in a chilling state of desolation. We wind through heaps of rubbish and walls of rubble, through streets in which all the cars are burned-out hulks, to a ruined warehouse where soldiers are passing out packs of food to a small crowd that appears to be a hair’s breadth away from rioting.
But most of the destruction has been caused by Daesh, as ISIS is known in Arabic, not the coalition, whose precision strikes and strict rules of engagement are the exact opposite of the scorched-earth strategy being applied in Syria. Fazil Barwari, the Iraqi general of Kurdish descent who commands the legendary Golden Division of 1st Brigade Iraqi special forces and has magnanimously agreed to act as our guide, insists on this point. He is proud of the coalition’s restraint—and rightly so.
• Another impression of Gen. Barwari. This one was gathered on another day on the road between Mosul and the Christian town of Bartella. My team and I are present at a meeting between Gen. Barwari and Sirwan Barzani, his Peshmerga Kurdish fighting-force counterpart. Their camaraderie is striking. Moving, too, is the evidence of the brotherhood of arms between their two elite units, their two golden divisions, about which previously I had my doubts.
We are seeing the smooth functioning, for now, of the strategy promoted by the Pentagon: the Kurds responsible for breaking through ISIS’s forward lines and opening the gates to the city; the Iraqis responsible for taking the eastern—and later the western—sectors of ISIS’s Berlin, street by street. The division of labor seems to be working. That is another pleasant surprise.
• Bad signs, too. The other side of the coalition’s restraint and its refusal to adopt the cleansing policy being applied by Syrian and Russian aircraft 300 miles away is that no sector of Mosul can yet be said to have been truly “liberated.”
One example will suffice. It is Nov. 27. We are at the edge of the officially secured zone in the neighborhoods of Al-Masarif and Al-Zohur. A three-wheeled litter pulls up carrying five civilians wounded by a rocket while out hunting for water. We help move the most seriously hurt into the back of a humvee. We question the brother of one. He is drunk with distress and vowing vengeance. The salvo was fired from very close, he says, no more than a hundred meters, by a group that came out of nowhere and disappeared as fast.
These commandos, fish in the water of a city that they have riddled with tunnels—these human bombs that pop up at any moment like evil genies behind positions that had been thought secure—are the terror of the civilian population. And of the military coalition as well.
• Civilians: Are they all really victims, in the sense of the five parched residents of Al-Zohur? Or are some of them complicit with a “Sunni order” in which they saw an opportunity to take revenge on Baghdad for “selling out” to Shiites? That is the question suggested to us by the closed faces of some of the men we try to interview in front of their ruined houses in the Saddam and Arbajiyah neighborhoods.
And even more so by the story of a produce seller in the district of Samah (Arabic for “forgiveness”) whose shop was conspicuously empty of merchandise and who, we are told, suddenly had the idea of setting up as a barber. Then, lo and behold, every bearded man in the neighborhood trooped through wanting a shave before the liberators arrived!
It is impossible not to compare Mosul with nearby cities in the Christian or Kurdish zones. With Bashiqa, for example, where we filmed ministers from three faiths—Muslim, Yazidi and Syriac Christian—together improvising a moving prayer for democracy and peace. Or Fazliya, where, the instant the town was liberated, every child poured into the main street chanting “long live the Peshmerga!”
• ISIS’s resistance. It is probably true of every report from the plain of Nineveh that one never sees the killers up close. Except dead, of course, as were the four attackers, draped with explosives, whom we filmed in Bashiqa on Nov. 8, just after they were shot by the Peshmerga.
Yet ISIS hangs on. Is it because it concentrated its most seasoned personnel in Mosul proper? Is it because the remaining fighters have their backs to the wall and battle here with furious desperation? Or is it that the coalition—with the cold weather setting in, with the rain and low, cloudy skies interfering with airstrikes—is getting weary?
Whatever the explanation, I return home with a deep sense of unease. Between Al-Zohur and Al-Qadisiyyah, a handful of fanatics manages to hold off an Iraqi counterterrorism unit. A little to the west, in Mishraq, a single sniper holed up alone in a mosque stalls the coalition’s advance. One senses that the battle for Mosul, which began with a flourish, could bog down.
Is it possible that we might become resigned to the idea of a strange war in which 4,000 cornered fighters stop an ultra-powerful coalition? For the children of Mosul, held hostage and on the verge of famine, that possibility would be catastrophic. And, in the capitals of the West where populations already live in fear of the next terrorist attack, it would be an admission of weakness that could only embolden aspiring jihadists whose hearts beat to the rhythm of the supposedly great feats of their big brothers in the “caliphate” of Iraq and Syria.
The fire must be stamped out. And very soon. To bring this about, one looks to Barack Obama, who might prove willing to quicken the pace so as to end his second term with a victory for civilization over the pseudo-state that presently threatens every real state in the world.
Failing that, we might have to hope that, come Jan. 20, Donald Trump remembers the speech he delivered the day after his Super Tuesday victory in the Republican primary. In that speech he said of ISIS: “Their days are numbered.”
Mr. Lévy was in Iraq making a film, “The Battle of Mosul,” for the French-German TV Channel ARTE. His earlier film, “Peshmerga,” was selected for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. His book “The Genius of Judaism” will be out from Random House next month. This op-ed was translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.