Bernard-Henri Lévy: With the Peshmerga, on the Front Line in the Battle for Mosul
Editor’s note: Bernard-Henri Lévy’s documentary, “Peshmerga,” was an Official Selection at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. He and his team are back in Iraqi Kurdistan, embedded with the Peshmerga, filming a follow-up. The following is his report.
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 are now using the bunker.
Through binoculars, a US soldier scans the valley in which the human bombs of ISIS may appear at any moment. Another stands behind a telescope trained 20 kilometers farther away on the outskirts of Mosul. A third, with long, blond hair and an Errol Flynn mustache, 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 Norman Mailer’s cartographer from the 112th cavalry of San Antonio) sits under a canopy deciphering the data coming in on his PC. And 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 at the dark? With Mosul 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 the Islamic State.
I am in Sheikh Amir in the al-Khazir zone. Sheikh Amir is the last liberated village before the beleaguered Christian city of Qaraqosh. Three brand new 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’ve traveled from Erbil. “You shouldn’t be here!”
“This is our land!” answers an ill-shaven man with a nasty, 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 Shi’ite militiamen that Baghdad has hastily incorporated into the Iraqi regular army. And the incident, however minor, speaks long about the tensions among the participants (the Peshmerga on the one hand; Baghdad’s majority Shi’ite 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, ISIS put up little resistance. But, in retreat, it left behind explosives hidden in soda bottles, fuel cans and sometimes even Korans. And Anwar, a Christian officer in the Peshmerga, is one of very few who take the risk of 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 soccer ball and the marbles mingled with spent cartridges, must have been a playground before becoming, today, 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: “But there’s another problem, Mr. Lévy. 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?”
Egged on by questions from my friend, Gilles Hertzog, Anwar speaks his mind plainly. Neither he nor any of the Christians in the Qaraqosh region has any confidence in Iraq. He won’t bring his wife and children back, he says, unless the Kurds, and the Kurds alone, are protecting the Plain of Nineveh. In what form, we ask? As a province? An autonomous zone under Kurdish mandate? And 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, wreckage of suicide trucks, and lingering fires from torched fuel depots. And suddenly, right in front of me, 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 meters down, I discover a tunnel a meter wide with an arched ceiling and cement walls interspersed with crude masonry in which a man my height can stand upright.
After walking tentatively for 100 meters by the light of the bomb technician’s flashlight, we come upon a passage perpendicular to the one we are in and similarly walled but that we do not enter because we can make out bundles of plastic explosive and contact wires. Then, 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. It’s a black-and-white publication of eight pages, a sort of bulletin for ISIS 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 (martyr) who has rid the world of a kafir (heretic); and a report on the presence of sleeper cells in Kirkuk. On page 2, 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 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 meters from the front line. In his bunker, furnished with a simple table and spartan bed, I observe this amazing officer who is the age of Napoleon’s generals. I listen to him explain, in perfect English and against a background of arriving and departing mortar shells, his theory of an enemy made up of (1) “loonies” (the drivers of suicide trucks); (2) “rats” (the denizens of the tunnels); and (3) “attack dogs” (whom he believes will offer fierce resistance).
How is it possible that a soldier of his rank should be so exposed, so close to the combat zone that he can grant me only a few seconds for a photo outside in the open? There is the legendary courage of the Kurdish commanders who place themselves not behind but in front of their men … There is his name, which could expose him to suspicions of nepotism if he didn’t force himself to be all the braver … But, above all, there is the following. Here, ISIS holds one of its most strategic positions. We are only a few kilometers from an immense dam that, if sabotaged, would flood the entire region extending to Mosul and on to Baghdad. Therefore, 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, solid soldiers. It needs seasoned commandos to pass behind enemy lines and carry out the boldest 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, armored vehicles, and Toyotas. Then, at the first glimmers of dawn, two drones, similar to the one that dropped a bomb two weeks ago on the French camp in Erbil: but this time the Peshmerga, in a hail of fire from Kalashnikovs and 12.7 mm caliber machine guns, destroy them before they can touch down. We slip into the last of the five armored personnel carriers that are headed for the front. We leave behind us the mounds of excavated earth where the rest of the troops will await the order to advance. We wend through a landscape of hamlets, warehouses, and ghostly houses from which we expect at any moment to see a suicide bomber emerge. A sniper! Our gunner at his turret takes him out. And another, whose shot grazes our lead cameraman who is filming from the turret next to the gunner. This one escapes, disappearing into the gloom. A spasm of anxiety at the sound of something striking our vehicle’s armor. Another when we learn through walkie-talkie exchanges with the excavators ahead of us that the road is mined and we will have to find a new route across the empty terrain to our left. We spend two hours driving nearly blind, with no other guidance but that of the local villager riding on the lead bulldozer, two hours of jolts and swerves in the dust, of bogging down, 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.
Of the sequence that follows, I have the images recorded by our second cameraman, Ala Tayyeb, after 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 from an olive grove that had seemed 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. But the shooting becomes more intense. The 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 armored 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? And 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 valiance do the Kurds overcome the jihadists and liberate the village — but at what a price!
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. And, it soon becomes clear, he has messages 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 had 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 than he. He says hardly a thing when I praise the courage of his soldiers. He ducks when I ask him if he believes that the prospect that seemed to haunt him when we last talked in September, the specter of a Shi’ite corridor running through Mosul from Baghdad to Syria, has been dispelled. And, when Gilles 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 adviser, 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. And the reason for his mood during our interview, not to say his wrath, is that he felt abandoned by his allies — and not far from believing that he has fulfilled his part of the bargain and that, for him, the war is over.
Because why didn’t the promised air support arrive? Why, in defiance of the rules of engagement, did no aircraft take off from the bases in Erbil or Qayyarah? Why, when an Apache helicopter had, at that same moment and not far away, come to the rescue of a mortally wounded American soldier, was another not found to come to the assistance of 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 realized that the road was mined and had to find another route. But here in Erbil the most widely accepted explanation is less forgiving. We are the best, the Kurds say. We were flying from one victory to another while the Iraqi regulars were managing to lose again two of the villages they had just taken. But our western allies were listening selectively. They wanted success to be equally apportioned among all parties: Kurds, the majority Shi’ite Iraqi army, and the Sunni militiamen designed to reassure the Arabs of Mosul. And, in this studied balance that they sought; in the distribution of roles testily negotiated with, in particular, Baghdad and its Iranian backers; within the framework, then, of the commitment the Americans made not to let the Peshmerga move too fast and gain an advantage that would cost too much later on — the price being the independence of Kurdistan and the supposed “destabilization” of Iraq and the region — it was not necessarily a bad thing to see our column rubbed out in Fazliya.
That explanation is probably too simple. But I do remember one of Barack Obama’s predecessors 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. And we all remember the trouble that a certain General de Gaulle had in obtaining from another American president the right to have a Free French division enter insurgent Paris. And thus that explanation may not be too absurd to ascribe to allied capitals locked into their old sovereign schemes and ready to do nearly anything to try to please one newly rehabilitated power (Iran) or to preserve another pseudo-nation (Iraq) while not becoming overly indebted to a people who would certainly not shrink, when the time came to settle up, from claiming their fair share of the fruits of victory (the Kurdish people, who for a century have played the fall guy in our schemes). If that were the case, if that were the nature of the powers’ great game here, if one persisted in asking the Peshmerga to open the doors to Mosul but not to enter it, and if the return of the Christians to the Plain of Nineveh were to hang on such a cynical accommodation, then the battle would have gotten off to a very bad start and the moral defeat of ISIS would be much less certain than it appears.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy.