I tell him that I've been here before. Then I explain about the candy store and the mayor's complex. He wants to know why I came back.

"To see what it was like now, I guess."

He looks at me, perplexed. "It is just as you left it."


Two days later, Hawre and I are driving again. Fixed along the horizon is Bartella, on the outskirts of Mosul. The town is burning. Noxious columns of smoke lift upward, like stitches fastening earth to sky. Yesterday Hawre and I left Baghdad and headed north to join the offensive. Now, around 2:00 p.m., our Toyota HiLux is stopped on the shoulder of the road, alongside a mélange of tanks, armored bulldozers, and black Humvees from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service's 1st Brigade, also known as the Golden Division. Bartella is a Christian town and the Golden Division, with its Shia flags fluttering from the back of every other vehicle, will soon liberate it from more than two years of Islamic State occupation.

Soldiers in black uniforms and black ski masks escort a pair of priests into a white Suburban, and I find myself trying to remember when, in the history of war, the good guys wore black. The priests plan to hold Mass that afternoon in the Mart Shmoni church, in the center of Bartella. As their Suburban pulls into the street, Hawre and I pull up behind them. A soldier with the Golden Division cuts us off. I offer my press credentials—a dog-eared letter from this magazine—and my passport. Hawre argues with him in Kurdish. He hands the soldier his Iraqi identification card. "He wants to keep your passport until we come out of Bartella," Hawre says.

"I'm not giving him my passport."

"Then we can't go," Hawre says. A beat passes. "Don't worry," he pleads. "I've got his cell-phone number."

The soldier grins. He's missing one of his incisors and another tooth is made of gold. "I be here when you back," he tells me in choppy English. I hand him my passport and our HiLux slides behind the priests.

The Golden Division rides into Bartella, a town near Mosul.

A day after the Golden Division launched its assault on Bartella, we hear early estimates that eighty Islamic State fighters lie dead in the town. On either side of the road, scorched swaths of dry grass spot the ground. Nearly every building is a mass of twisted rebar and collapsed cinder blocks. Snaps of rifle fire and the low percussive thuds of artillery and airstrikes can be heard in the distance, causing confused flocks of birds to leap from their perches and juke across the skyline. A sedan passes us going the opposite direction. Hunched behind its steering wheel with his eyes barely above the dashboard is a boy not much more than ten years old. Two little girls even younger than him are in the backseat. They are wearing school uniforms. We pass a road sign: MOSUL, 27KM.

Unlike Fallujah, which is sixteen square kilometers, Mosul and its environs are sprawling. The battles for Fallujah in 2004 involved little maneuver. We cleared house-to-house through dense urban blocks. This battle, by contrast, has seen movement along multiple axes of advance. We are to the east of Mosul, with the Iraqi security forces. To the north and south is the Kurdish peshmerga, as well as other units of the Iraqi security forces. Waiting in reserve is the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi, whose presence is controversial. Prime Minister Abadi has promised that only Iraq's nominally secular security forces, including the Golden Division, will participate in the final fight for Mosul itself. But if the Islamic State proves too much for the Iraqi security forces, the peshmerga and Hashd al-Shaabi may find themselves immersed in the battle, further inflaming sectarian tensions. What will happen inside Mosul is the question on everyone's mind.

"I have been fighting nonstop for a year, but they don't worry. If I die, I will be a martyr."