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For Many Iraqis, The Battle To Drive ISIS From Mosul Was Personal


For many of the Iraqis who fought to drive ISIS out of Mosul, the battle was personal. We're about to meet some fighters who are part of an elite SWAT unit known as the Avengers. My co-host Ari Shapiro picks up the story from here.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This group has an unusual requirement for its members. Each of them has either been wounded by or lost a family member to terrorism. The reporter bringing us their story is also Iraqi. He spent months with the Avengers on the frontlines, witnessing victory and tragedy. Sangar Khaleel is NPR's fixer, which means - Sangar, why don't I let you explain how you see your job?

SANGAR KHALEEL, BYLINE: Well, my job is getting permission for journalists and taking them to the frontlines, updating the journalists what's going on, like, minute by minute, hour by hour, to show the world what's going on here in Iraq, especially in Mosul.

SHAPIRO: The work that you do for NPR and other news organizations is often dangerous and generally behind the scenes, so I'm glad to have the opportunity to talk with you here in front of the microphone - thank you for the work that you're doing - and also to hear this story. Now, you became very close with members of this SWAT team while you were working on a story for The New Yorker and kept in touch with three of the men, who were like brothers to each other. Tell us about these three men.

KHALEEL: I met Ali Abbas, Sarmad Ibrahim and Sigar Shihab on the frontlines of Mosul. Mosul was the capital of the caliphate at that time because ISIS declared their caliphate, and all of those three guys are from Mosul. And Sarmad is a short guy, and he's so tough. He has scars - like, a deep scar in his left cheek. And he was always joking with these guys. He was always making fun of them. Ali is a big guy with a thick mustache. He was so tough and very clever in the fighting. Sigar was wounded so many times before the fighting against ISIS on his head, but it was covered by scars. And Sigar and Sarmad's wife and children were trapped in the city under Islamic State control. Last time Sigar saw his wife, she was pregnant. Sigar couldn't meet his son.

SHAPIRO: Sarmad, Ali and Sigar - they were so close to each other, they actually had each other's names tattooed on their hands.

KHALEEL: They have tattoos on their hands - on Ali's right hand and Sarmad's left. I asked Ali...

(Non-English language spoken).

What's the idea of the tattoos? He said...

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

KHALEEL: If Sarmad dies, he will stay and stick with me my entire life.

SHAPIRO: How dangerous was it? I mean, you were there on the frontlines with them. What were the conditions like?

KHALEEL: It was so dangerous because these guys, they had, like, very limited ammunitions, and the enemy had car bombs, IEDs, snipers. And they had too much ammunitions. And sometimes, they had to use tricks with ISIS. One day I showed a video which is - one of the guys is using his own hat on a stick to draw the ISIS sniper's fire to know from where that ISIS guy is shooting at them. They didn't want to use even one bullet.

SHAPIRO: How did the men cope with the stress and the danger as this assault on Mosul, their home city, went on for months and months?

KHALEEL: They all were stressful, especially when the night was coming.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

KHALEEL: Ali told me how Sigar was crying the whole night, remembering his family...

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

KHALEEL: ...Suffering inside the city of Mosul, and he couldn't reach them. And Sigar was one of the tough fighters.

SHAPIRO: Were their families ultimately liberated?

KHALEEL: Yes, their families were liberated. Sigar himself personally liberated his own family. And the mother collapsed. Sigar's wife collapsed. They didn't expect that Sigar will come into the house. And Sigar was - his first time meeting his son, so it was...

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

KHALEEL: ...An emotional moment. He told me, I was never expecting this. I was expecting that my family will be taken by the Islamic State and they get killed because I am fighting them.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, these forces helped reclaim Mosul and take back the city from ISIS, but that was not the end of the fight for them. What happened next?

KHALEEL: So almost all the Iraqi troops, they went home. They went back to their bases. But this is not the end for these guys, for the SWAT team, because they are the special forces of the local police. So they still chase sleeper cells, ISIS groups. And they just go on raids and look for other ISIS members.


SHAPIRO: The men went out on one of those raids in the marshes south of Mosul. We have some sound of this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KHALEEL: On the way, it was cold. And Sigar and Sarmad, they were actually stealing the blanket from each other because the Humvee's heater was not working.

SHAPIRO: There was one blanket for the two of them, and they were each pulling it from the other.

KHALEEL: One blanket for four of them, actually, but, like...

SHAPIRO: For four of them.

KHALEEL: ...Especially - because these two guys - they were close to each other, so they could steal from each other. And when they arrived, then ISIS opened fire on them.

SHAPIRO: And as this raid was happening, you got word that something terrible had happened.

KHALEEL: One of the guys called me. He said, hey, Sangar. Can you be on the phone, please, because Sigar is badly wounded, and we may need your translation with the American medics. Half an hour later, I found out on social media Sigar has died.

SHAPIRO: This is the man who fought so hard for his city and was finally reunited with his wife and met his child for the first time - killed in this operation. How did Sarmad and Ali cope with the death of this man who had been like a brother to them through this extremely difficult time?

KHALEEL: Until now, they cannot stand it. I met Ali and Sarmad in a cafe in Mosul, and I could see the sadness and how these guys are broken from inside, you know, when they remembered Sigar.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

KHALEEL: And also, Ali says, I cannot make any more friends because I don't want to lose friends.

SHAPIRO: He was your friend, too. How do you want him to be remembered?

KHALEEL: Sigar was my closest friend among the SWAT team. He was the nicest person among them. He always had candies in his pocket, giving to people. He was always answering my phones. I want him to be remembered in the best way. I am from Mosul, and he liberated my city. After the liberation, he died for my city. And me, Ali and Sarmad, when we were sitting in a cafe remembering him, there was a moment. Music started, and it was a birthday of a teenage boy. And music was not allowed at all during ISIS, especially in public. And so this was a reminder of why Sigar died for and Sarmad and Ali fought for - for people like this teenage boy to celebrate their birthdays, their lives and for even me and Ali and Sarmad to sit in a cafe freely without any fear, which never happened before 2014.

SHAPIRO: Sangar Khaleel, I'm sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing this story with us.

KHALEEL: Thank you.

CHANG: Sangar Khaleel is a fixer in Iraq for NPR. Today there is a big photograph of Sigar Shihab on display in the center of Mosul. It was taken after the liberation. He's smiling, wearing his uniform and looking out at the city he helped free.


Sangar Khaleel
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.