It is only days before he is due to return home on leave, and commanders have sent him behind enemy lines for one last mission: take some of the explosives the Iraqi army has salvaged from Islamic State and resow them like deadly seeds in the no man’s land they call ard al haram — the forbidden zone.
Islamic State infiltrators have been stealthily crossing through the deserted stretch of abandoned homes and barricaded businesses to mount attacks against Iraqi troops; the explosives are meant to stop them.
Like many young soldiers, Wissam Daoud, a bomb technician with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s Emergency Response Division, has been fighting alongside his army colleagues for three years to drive the militants out. He has tracked the evolution of their explosives through a half dozen offensives, and can identify them at a glance: the lemsawi, modified mortar rockets; kamala, which can be triggered remotely or by applying pressure; bottle bombs attached to doors; plasma bombs camouflaged as household items or debris.
His job is to render them harmless, or turn them back against the enemy, or die trying.
Daoud’s army is no longer the one that turned and fled when fast-moving jihadi militants seized Mosul in 2014. Just as the Iraqi military has hardened through training and combat, so has he.
Dying in an explosion is no longer the 25-year-old Daoud’s worst fear. That, he’s come to realize, would be painless — he carries an Iraqi flag in his pants pocket, to be draped over his body should the need arise.
What Daoud has learned to fear is a sniper’s bullet. Bombs you can see. Snipers are elusive. Their bullets leave soldiers bedridden, permanently disabled.
“Better to die than to be injured,” Daoud says. “No one cares about you in Iraq when you are injured.”
More than a dozen of his friends have been shot by snipers, and he knows how it goes. Bomb defusers are paid about $1,000 a month, the same as other soldiers, and when they’re injured and off duty, the pay gets reduced. Daoud has helped cover injured comrades’ hospital bills, and has still seen them languish at home, unable to afford surgeries, medicine and other care the government would not provide.
Daoud’s father was also a bomb defuser; he lost three fingers during the bloody war with Iran in the 1980s. He told Daoud not to come home injured. They laughed, but neither considered it a joke.
Iraqi commanders have refused to release military casualty figures since the Mosul offensive started Oct. 17, saying they’re bad for morale. But Daoud knows they are high: 200 of his friends have died, many of them young defusers with families.
Daoud prepares his 10-man team for the possibility of a bad outcome each time they set out. “Either I will hold you,” he tells them, “or you will hold me.”
His longtime mentor will be shot by a sniper on an upcoming mission. His assistant will die before his eyes. And Daoud, a devout Shiite Muslim who joined the military out of religious duty, will have to decide the price he is willing to pay to defeat the elusive, black-flagged Sunni extremists who have declared his country their caliphate.
Since the offensive to retake Mosul started last fall, Daoud has defused hundreds of incendiary devices. He kept them around the abandoned home where his unit was billeted at the edge of West Mosul.
Before setting off for the forbidden zone, Daoud dumped a salvaged suicide belt next to his bed, set a sausage-shaped IED in the living room and stacked mortar rounds by the front door. He paused to demonstrate Islamic State bomb triggers fashioned from syringes and clear plastic fishing line. This is why he cautions children he sees in freed areas of west Mosul not to play with junk they find in abandoned storefronts.
“One small mistake,” said the shaggy haired, chain-smoking, veteran bomb technician, “and you’re dead.”
Daoud’s two brothers are also bomb defusers. He grew up tinkering with electronics in Baghdad, later volunteering to defuse bombs militants planted in his blue-collar Shaab neighborhood.
West Mosul’s bombs have been the toughest and most plentiful of any offensive so far, he said.
“Many bombs here are hard to see,” he said, picking up bomb triggers his team salvaged from booby-trapped homes. “Soldiers can’t find them. We call them ‘stupid traps.’ Clear plastic wire is attached to a door. You won’t see it until you pull it with your hand or your head.”
Daoud recommends handling a bomb like a baby (“Don’t wake it!”) or a dog (“Don’t frighten it!”).
He has seen plenty of civilians killed by Islamic State explosives. In January, his team was pinned down by snipers while trying to rescue a family fleeing east Mosul, who then set off a booby trap. He found their bodies in the street, including a newborn.
Daoud has been injured twice. Two years ago, he stepped on a bomb while fleeing an Islamic State sniper south of Mosul in Baiji, breaking bones in his chest. He still has trouble sleeping because of the injury. More recently, he cut his right leg while destroying a bomb he found at west Mosul airport.
Before Daoud ventured into the forbidden zone, his mother called him, distraught. She’d just seen the bodies of several soldiers killed in Mosul returned to neighbors.
“I’m worried about you,” she sobbed. “I saw on the TV the troops reached Ashur Hotel.”
Daoud had been at the hotel the day before, defusing bombs. That morning, his team had removed a half dozen mortar rounds and homemade bombs from a Mosul house, and he had joked, “If I keep doing this, I won’t ever have any babies!” He was still single, having postponed marriage until after Iraqi forces recapture Mosul.
But he didn’t want his mother to worry. So he smiled, and reassured her in a soft voice that he was not on the front lines.
On the day things fell apart in the forbidden zone, Daoud was defusing bombs in a hotel in what was once Mosul’s city center.
Later, smoking in his bedroom, he would recall how it started.
By 4 p.m., he was itching to leave, afraid militants were lurking nearby.
“I think it’s time to go back,” he told his commander.
But Maj. Hussam Hashash, 38, chubby and balding with a thick mustache, wanted to stay another half hour to check a house.
Daoud’s fresh-faced mentor, Emir Abdel Mehdi, 24, suggested they avoid approaching the house from the street. So they slipped in through a hole in the wall. Soldiers stood guard outside.
The defusing team advanced in a line, wary of militants to their right.
Then came the shots — from the left.
Mehdi was hit in the left hand and leg. Before Daoud could reach him, sniper fire dislodged a cinder block, pinning Mehdi to the ground. As Daoud watched, his mentor was shot again, in the belly.
Daoud, the major and his slender young assistant, Ali Motar, 36, ran to the wounded soldier. They freed, then carried Mehdi through another hole in a wall to safety while calling for help on their radios.
The assistant was shot in the head as he stood next to Daoud in the house. He died almost immediately.
“Ali was slow,” Daoud later recalled. “That’s when the sniper shot him.”
Mehdi was bleeding heavily. Daoud had to slap his mentor’s face to keep him from losing consciousness.
He called an American officer he knew at the joint U.S.-Iraqi military base in nearby Qayyarah. Daoud often helped U.S. forces defuse bombs in his spare time, and had gotten to know the U.S. soldiers. If anything ever happens to a member of your team, the officer had said, call me.
Mehdi was more than just a battle buddy: He had taught Daoud the job, then named his 4-year-old son after him.
Now Daoud was asking the American officer if he could bring Mehdi to the base’s clinic. The officer agreed. Mehdi was still alive when they arrived.
He survived. Daoud and his teammates told the medics to notify Motar’s young wife that he had not.
“We didn’t have the courage,” Daoud said later, feeling guilty for having brought the assistant with him.
Mehdi was sent home to Baghdad for surgery.
Days later, Daoud headed home, too. He carried with him the backpacks of his injured and fallen colleagues, to deliver to their families.
Daoud found Mehdi propped up on a borrowed hospital bed in his family’s bare living room near the military base in Taji, a poor area north of Baghdad. Mehdi was coughing, sleepless, barely able to eat.
Daoud unfurled his friend’s Iraqi flag and draped it over him. Then he sat by his side, prayer beads looped through his fingers, beneath a portrait of the Shiite martyr Hussein ibn Ali. He took Mehdi’s face in both hands and prayed.
“Cure him,” he said, quietly. “Because nobody is helping.”
Mehdi, who worked for seven years as an interpreter for U.S. forces at the nearby base, had paid more than $500 for three surgeries with assistance from Daoud and other soldiers. But the injured defuser still could not move his left leg. He needed another surgery, doctors said.
Sons Wissam, 4, and Muntadar, 2, toddled to their father’s side. Mehdi predicted the baby would one day be a defuser, too.
Daoud had been sharing tips with newly trained defusers during his time at home, and promised to teach Muntadar. He slipped Mehdi’s father some cash before leaving to visit another injured friend across town in a neighborhood called Hurriya, “Freedom.” On the way, he passed several signs honoring fallen soldiers.
“Can you feel this?” Daoud asked the injured man after he arrived, touching the fingers of his bandaged right hand.
Ali Raad Atta’s hand had been nearly blown off. He had spent nearly $2,000 on surgeries. Metal pins jutted from the 20-year-old’s arm. Several of his fingers were black. He said he could feel all but one.
Atta, who had been employed as a driver, was injured after he volunteered to defuse a bomb on the first floor of a west Mosul hotel. Daoud had been downstairs, dismantling bombs in the basement.
“We were in a hurry to take control. We had to clear it quickly. We could see Daesh in the street shooting at us,” Atta recalled, using a common Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
“You should have left,” Daoud said quietly.
“We were under pressure. There was fire,” Atta said.
“The first mistake is the last mistake,” Daoud said, and he wasn’t just talking about Atta: He blamed himself and his team for not stopping the young driver.
Before Atta had been injured, a general had seen him defuse a bomb and awarded him about $2,000 plus a bedroom set. Iraqi officials sometimes give defusers cash, furniture, even property if they spot them doing something daring.
But the payments don’t help with spiraling medical bills. Those with disabling injuries like Atta’s can apply for a pension, but if they’re young with few years of experience, they won’t receive much. Atta said he knows a veteran who recently sold his phone to pay for medicine. Atta’s brother said the family was prepared to sell their house to save his hand.
Daoud promised to help. Before he left, they noticed a new posting on Facebook: A fellow soldier who had visited Atta in the hospital had been killed by a car bomb in Mosul. His family couldn’t afford to pick up the body. Daoud said his friends would.
On the highway south of Baghdad, Daoud turned up the radio when a popular song came on: “I miss Mosul,” it went. “Take me back, whether I’m wrapped in the flag or carry it.”
He pulled into the massive cemetery in Najaf known as Wadi Salam — “Valley of Peace” — and began threading his way through fresh graves.
Already the largest in the world with more than 5 million plots, the cemetery is adding an average of 20 Mosul soldiers’ graves a day, sometimes up to 190, a gravedigger said.
Making his way through the resting places of fallen comrades, Daoud recalled how each one had landed there. One was cut in half by a blast after sitting on a bomb, two others were blown apart when they triggered a booby-trapped house.
“I couldn’t save them,” he said, falling silent as birds chirped from the rafters of the mausoleum.
Later, Daoud visited his family plot and rubbed the polished wood doors of the nearby shrine of Imam Ali, among the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims. Outside the golden shrine, Daoud paused to chat with vendors selling winding sheets for burial. He already had his.
Soon after, as he prepared to return home, Daoud’s phone rang with bad news.
“No, no, no!” he shouted, and then, “Did they get the body yet? Are they in Najaf?”
The body of the latest of Daoud’s friends to be killed in Mosul had not reached Baghdad yet.
Daoud had just talked to the soldier, Mustafa Ali Naji, by phone that morning: He was supposed to replace him in Mosul. But before Daoud returned from leave, the 28-year-old had been killed defusing a mortar.
Daoud called the man’s family, who said they couldn’t afford a funeral.
“He was killed for the government, but there’s not enough money to bury him,” Daoud fumed as he headed for the military base where the body would be delivered.
Scores of empty wooden coffins lined the area where relatives and friends awaited the bodies.
“Maybe I will be like him, a martyr,” Daoud said. “That’s how it is here. We have to accept it. I’m going to the front lines the day after tomorrow.”
The body arrived, and the motorcade left for Naji’s neighborhood of Utafiyah on the banks of the Tigris River. Military truck lights flashed. Sirens blared. Bystanders stopped to wave.
In the blue-collar neighborhood, hundreds of families lined the streets. Daoud was smiling as he clambered out to join the swelling procession. A trumpet crooned traditional upbeat funeral music as mourners marched, a few firing automatic rifles into the night sky.
Daoud would not weep until he was driving back over the river, going home to pack. For his work in the forbidden zone, he had received a promotion to first sergeant, commander of the defusing team. But he had made a decision: He didn’t want to return. He called his commanders to say he would not be going back.
Then the major called. He had a new group of novice defusers arriving soon. He needed help training them. Daoud felt responsible. And so, despite his misgivings, he agreed.
He returned to Mosul.
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Lead photo caption: Wissam Daoud treads carefully through salvaged Islamic State explosives at the abandoned house where his bomb defusing team camped near West Mosul. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)