On October 17, 2016, Iraqi troops, with air support from the international coalition, embarked on the greatest urban battle ever waged since the Second World War: the battle to regain control of the city of Mosul which had been in the clutches of ISIS for two years. Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF or the “Golden Division”), originally set up by forces with the US-led coalition at the time of the war after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were now the first line of attack. When the offensive was launched, Alvaro Canovas was there with the special forces. On six occasions over many long months, he was beside the Iraqi soldiers in their battle against jihadists. “You might say that it’s good against evil. On every trip there, I would think about my friend Pierrot who was murdered at the Bataclan. I wanted to follow the soldiers all the way through to victory.” The magazine Paris Match gave him the opportunity to do so. He could spend weeks alongside them, close by, taking photos of them, and always displaying his characteristic kindness and humor, plus his reliable instinct. Canovas is greatly attached to the country that he has only ever known in the grips of war, going back even before the U.S. invasion. Today Alvaro Canovas is almost 50 years old, and his career as a photographer has included most wars and revolutions, yet, as he explained on returning home, never before had he covered fighting that was so dangerous.

Iraqi soldiers were confronted with fighters putting up fierce resistance, with firing in every direction, in the blinding sunlight and dust, and with all sorts of weapons: AK 47s, mines, missiles from coalition airstrikes, and suicide car bombs packed with explosives, and some even with makeshift armor plating. Alvaro Canovas reported with pictures showing slow and resolute fighting, sudden bursts of fire, the blast from bombs. The battalion he was following advanced methodically, going from house to house, exploring each doorway, each room, going from floor to floor. And they were up against ISIS fighters, grim, determined and ruthless as they moved on, holding their weapons out in front of them, fighting back at every step. In streets reduced to rubble, choking on the smoke of burning gasoline, any and every step might be the last one. The fighting has destroyed the city, and trapped the civilian population as they attempt to flee. The photographer, who has seen thousands of residents petrified with fear, makes one point very clear: “Unlike Syrian or Russian troops, Iraqi soldiers have always taken the plight of civilians into consideration.” The battle is perilous, and it is often fatal. A number of the men in the reports by Alvaro Canovas are now dead or have serious injuries. His photographic and documentary work stands as a tribute to these men.

Émilie Blachere

Alvaro Canovas

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