At the bottom of a hill near the frontline with Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi army had been digging in. Their white tents stood near the brown earth gouged by the armoured trucks that had carried them there – the closest point to Mosul they had reached before an assault on Iraq’s second largest city.
For a few days early last month, the offensive looked like it already might be under way. But that soon changed when the Iraqis, trained by US forces, were quickly ousted from al-Nasr, the first town they had seized. There were about 25 more small towns and villages, all occupied by Isis, between them and Mosul.