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Interview: Witnessing the fall of the Islamic State

Iraqi forces in the offensive on Mosul. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

James Verini arrived in Iraq just as “the climactic battle” of the war against the Islamic State was about to begin.

The big picture: Verini remained in Mosul for nearly a year and documented the fight to reclaim Iraq’s second city in his new book, “They Will Have to Die Now.” But while ISIS’ caliphate ended with the liberation of Mosul in July 2017, Verini tells me, “I fear that in the larger sense, what we’re seeing is not a liberation.”

  • Flashback: Many residents of Mosul enthusiastically greeted the American invasion in 2003, the arrival of ISIS a decade later and then — after suffering under the caliphate — their Iraqi liberators. The cycle of violence and disillusionment has “brutalized” the country, Verini says.
  • ISIS' rise and fall have left suspicions and resentments that will "be felt for generations," he says. One consequence of the open wound in the battered country, he adds, is “easy recruitment for whatever follows ISIS.”

Verini peppers the book with the tension, boredom and absurdity of war.

  • One soldier remarks warily that ISIS fights fiercely on Fridays, spurred on by sermons from its bloodthirsty imams. Another tells of saving a single bullet with which to kill himself if captured.
  • An Iraqi major, meanwhile, finds himself constantly on the phone with his worried mother even in the midst of battle.
  • "Between the bouts of violence and prayer and painting things black," Verini writes of life for ISIS members, "there was absolutely nothing to do.”

Most revealing are his conversations with ordinary Moslawis.

  • One of the book’s central characters admits without shame that he had “welcomed” ISIS. “They came in as revolutionaries,” he says, offering freedom and dignity.
  • His opinion changed, he says, when the full brutality of the group became clear and his son joined their ranks.
  • Another central character, a former refugee now returned home, is so dispirited by the state of his life, his city and his country after the war that he is already nostalgic for life under ISIS, when everyone was “too afraid” to commit theft or corruption.

Verini attempts to place the battle into the histories of Iraq and of Mosul, from ancient conquerors through the U.S. occupation.

  • Past and present constantly collide. Mosul is “one of the oldest cities on earth,” Verini writes. But it’s also one where “3G is standard,” making it “impossible to truly enslave anyone.”
  • At one point, Verini enters the Mosul Museum through “a hole blasted in the exterior wall” to find ancient Assyrian treasures, some intact but most destroyed. In the basement, he makes another discovery: a trove of ISIS propaganda.

This was a thoroughly modern battle, though, as some of the most jarring passages of Verini’s book make clear.

  • He writes of Kurdish peshmerga fighters — only recently “driven to the front by proud and worried family members” — snapping selfies between skirmishes.
  • Verini also describes his shock upon realizing airstrikes, which the Pentagon insisted were carefully coordinated, were being planned from an abandoned building over WhatsApp.

Verini’s identity as an American surfaces continually in his narrative and in his conversations with Iraqis.

  • “As an American journalist in Iraq in 2016, you’ve got two layers of ruin for which you are in some part responsible,” he tells me. The first is the American invasion and occupation. The second is the rise of ISIS.
  • “There the responsibility is somewhat more removed, but it’s still very present,” he says. “Because ISIS would not exist, or certainly not exist in this way, if not for the American adventure in Iraq.”

Verini says the U.S. will "almost certainly forget the lessons of this war."

  • One of those lessons, he contends, is that ISIS was not produced by a sudden wave of religious fanaticism. Most Iraqis who joined, he says, "weren't zealots, or even particularly devout."
  • The group's skill with propaganda, its ambition and its sadism propelled it to heights that had seemed unfathomable.
  • But, he argues, ISIS was also born out of a history that Americans haven't fully come to terms with.

Go deeper: Where U.S. troops and military assets are deployed in the Middle East