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A general in hell

Most stories, no matter how implicitly, encourage you to make judgments. You want to know, pretty quickly, who is the hero. That way you can barrack for them and there won’t be any nasty surprises as you read along.

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Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those sort of stories. It is, instead, simply a tale about the way things are, in a very different country, in the middle of a war. But unless you, too, have seen your home city become a battle zone, or witnessed your future evaporating as a nation disintegrates around you, then don’t judge Brigadier-General Hassan al-Nuaimi. Because one thing’s for sure: his men would follow him anywhere.

From his youth, Nuaimi was destined for the army. He came from a well-connected military family: his father and uncle were generals in Saddam Hussein’s army. It would have been more surprising if he’d refused officer training and so, as a good, responsible child, of course he didn’t. He did what was expected of him, so, five years before the US invaded Iraq, he graduated into the technical arm that we’d call artillery. He then engaged in all the peacetime routine drills that come with being in the army. Then, suddenly, like a terrible swift sword, war came. It has never departed.

Nuaimi was in part of the Iraqi army that was outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the US forces. It disintegrated rapidly as the Americans carved their way through the “ring of steel” that supposedly surrounded Baghdad. Iraq’s defences proved feeble and incapable of holding back the far superior weapons and equipment of the allies. Nothing could have stopped that assault, and nothing did.

It was after the assault that everything began to go wrong; very wrong. George W. Bush installed a hapless, incompetent, bungling pro-consul to run the country. Jerry Bremmer should never have been charged with administering anything more complex than a 7-Eleven but, fuelled with the swift triumph of victory, the Americans thought they could do anything. And then, as just the first of so many disastrous decisions, Bremmer sacked the entire Iraqi officer corps at a single stroke; throwing people out of work and removing their livelihood. Nuaimi was out of a job with, quite suddenly, no prospects. He began driving taxis.

Meanwhile, the security situation in the capital deteriorated rapidly. Nuaimi began carrying a pistol in the car door and then practising picking it up quickly, until it flew automatically into his hand. Yet for almost a year he kept working, picking up fares and dropping people off, trying to capture normality while everything else fell apart.

And then, finally, the moment came where the insurgency caught up with him. Two men, one waving a gun, charged into the taxi at a roundabout. They’d killed already and now wanted someone to drive them to safety.

Nuaimi ran through the automatic drills he’d taught his body, this time for real. He sprang from the car, trapping the terrorist’s gun hand in the door. The man pushed it open, smashing him in the face. But the pistol was in his hand. He fired. His assailant’s head came apart in the cab. The barrel of the other man’s automatic was caught in his bag. He dropped it and fled.

By now Nuaimi was trembling. He was far too shocked to shoot again and just wanted to escape. He scrambled back into the cab and sped to the centre of town, terrified someone may have seen his number plate. He knew that, if they had, he’d be marked for assassination in revenge. He parked the taxi in a vacant spot and fled.

Time passed. He took new jobs, working first as a security guard then, eventually, after the US had realised the stupidity of dispensing with people like Nuaimi, personal connections saw him return to the army.

Brigades and divisions multiplied, even if there weren’t enough soldiers to fill out the ranks and man the nominal structures. Nuaimi was promoted quickly. He acquired the rare red-tabbed epaulettes showing he was a graduate of staff college. Soon he was commanding 16 Division’s artillery: huge 105mm mortars that are set up like field guns, because that’s how they’re used – as an area weapon, to blunt enemy attacks (by forcing them to seek cover) and assist assaults (by destroying dug-in, defensive positions).

When Islamic State suddenly erupted in 2014, challenging the regime and threatening Baghdad, Hassan was on the frontline, one of few who remained to defend the capital while others fled. Since that time, he’s been with 16 Division as it’s slowly fought its way 400 kilometres north and into the insurgency’s heartland. At the city of Mosul, the battle finally bogged down as Daesh (the Islamic State) realised it could no longer trade terrain for time by retreating.

By now, the infantry were used to calling on the mortars every time they were opposed. The liberal use of firepower spared them the deadly heartbreak of costly assaults over open ground. But the war of movement had stopped at the gates of the city and the fight bogged down into the grinding slog of bitter, positional warfare, as both sides entrenched for a long battle.

Supported by heavy weapons, the infantry slowly managed to move forward. There were always, however, tasks that no one wanted to do, like clear trenches. There was one in particular – five-kilometres long, covered and protected – that stretched between a number of Da’esh posts. It was thought the insurgents had fled, but no one knew if there was still someone down there. And although the main force had been pushed back, this long trench could have been booby-trapped and mined, or stragglers might be waiting below for their chance to kill.

The general didn’t hesitate. Pulling out his pistol, he entered the long tunnel alone, feeling his way forward, checking for improvised bombs or tripwires that might set off an explosion. He told his soldiers not to follow too closely so that, if there was an explosion, he’d be the only one to die. Nuaimi was lucky. Either the insurgents had left in such a rush they’d failed to booby-trap the trench or, alternately, and possibly even more plausibly, Daesh has neither the capacity nor the explosives to rig bombs. But that’s not the sort of gamble on which anyone wants to risk their life.

Today, the trench is open and harmless. Being the first in, however, and clearing a way through the mud and masonry, takes a very special sort of courage. Particularly when you’re a senior officer with no need to prove one’s bravery. His soldiers still appreciate it – you can see it in their smiles when they talk about their mad, courageous general.

The way Nuaimi behaved is certainly not in accordance with standard operating procedures in the Australian Army. We don’t normally use senior officers as tunnel rats, probing with their own bodies to find explosive devices and clear trails for their men. But this general is not leading diggers and our operating procedures are irrelevant. Particularly for an army that’s been engaged in total war, against first Iran, then the US, and now Daesh, for 25 of the past 35 years. What’s far more critical is what the Iraqi soldiers think. Nuaimi’s soldiers look as if they’re prepared to follow him anywhere.

This is the key to understanding why the current offensive against Daesh has the potential to resolve the conflict, once and for all. It’s being fought and won by the Iraqi forces. The tactics used in the battle for Mosul aren’t Western: they’re slow and deliberate. There’s no finesse in a fight that’s now disintegrated into a laneway-by-laneway, house-by-house struggle in the tight spaces of the old city. There’s been so much killing, so much horror, that the idea of a final thrust to finish the war quickly brings something like laughter to the soldiers when I suggest it. They know any assault will certainly end in death. The enemy may be killed, but so will many Iraqi soldiers. No one wants to be the last one to die in battle, so no one wants to be the first to charge across the rubble.

That’s what makes Nuaimi’s leadership so special. He isn’t sitting back and ordering his soldiers to attack; he’s going in with them instead.

Iraq will win this fight; it will just take a long time.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer. He travelled to Mosul as a guest of the Iraq government.

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