On the morning of 5 March a group of soldiers belonging to the Iraqi Special Operations Forces left the ruined village that had been their base for the past three weeks and drove north towards Mosul. Their target was the Baghdad Circle, a bleak intersection on the main highway into town, adorned since 2014 with a black and white billboard showing the black flag of Islamic State, with the seal of the prophet and beneath it the words ‘The Islamic State, Wilayat al-Mosul’. Since operations to recapture the western side of Mosul began in mid-February, the Iraqi soldiers had twice attacked the Circle and twice they had been pushed back.‘They have formidable fortifications,’ an officer told me. IS had built a berm – a raised earthwork bank – with a trench behind it, and then another berm, all laid with IEDs. ‘In a whole day of fighting,’ the officer said, ‘we advanced no more than 150 metres.’He pinched and zoomed a satellite map on his tablet. The Circle is the gateway to western Mosul, the oldest part of the city. The eastern part, on the other side of the Tigris, had been retaken by the end of January. Western Mosul, with its dense neighbourhoods and narrow streets, was a bigger challenge. As long as IS held the Circle, the officer explained, the highway to Baghdad could not be opened to traffic. Refugees and troops were forced to take a circuitous route through the hills to avoid snipers and rocket launchers. For the third attack, he said, a small team of special forces would cross the highway under cover of a massive barrage of fire, outflank the Circle and try to breach the fortifications from behind. Once a bridgehead was established, the rest of the troops would follow.
The Baghdad Road: In and Out of Mosul