Yuri Kozyrev: On the Front Lines of the War Against ISIS

Photojournalist Yuri Kozyrev has lived through the full arc of the war in Iraq. Based in Baghdad from 2002 to 2009, he documented the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country, from the initial “shock and awe” phase of bombardment through the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. He was on the scene in Tikrit when U.S. forces pulled the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein from his underground hideout.

Kozyrev worked on the front lines as more and more Iraqis grew to reject the U.S. presence in their country and some came to support an armed insurrection against the American forces. He photographed the war day by day as the insurgency metastasized into a brutal sectarian civil war, sowing the seeds of extremism that continue to devastate the country to this day. Working alongside Iraqis and a series of TIME correspondents, he has been an eyewitness to the shattering of Iraq.

Kozyrev recalls one moment in December 2003 when he sensed a shift in the dynamics of the war. He had been with a group of U.S. soldiers near the Baghdad airport when they came under mortar fire from insurgents. “It was crazy, dangerous,” he recalls. “There were casualties.” A day or two later, as he was going to photograph a group of insurgents, he realized they had taken him and a correspondent to a position where they were shelling the same airport. It was a shocking juxtaposition. “It was crazy, because suddenly you could be with the enemy and see them hitting the airport,” he says. “It was weird. There was nothing you could do.”

One of the resulting images from that assignment was an Iraqi insurgent, holding a missile launcher, his face covered with a scarf. Kozyrev met the same fighter and his group multiple times, but eventually, the man cut off his access. It was a shift in the tone of the insurgency. “Enough, we’re finished,” he told Kozyrev through an interpreter. “We don’t need your coverage.”

Read next: These 5 Facts Explain the Good—and the Bad—About Iraq Today

Kozyrev also remembers the moment when the U.S. coalition authorities decided to disband the Iraqi army in May 2003, fueling the insurgency. “All the men lost their jobs,” he says. “They didn’t have any future. They were actually patient, and then some of them joined the insurgency, and them some of them joined al-Qaeda, and then ISIS.”

Another startling moment came in 2009 when he visited Camp Bucca, the vast U.S.-run military prison, which at its peak held 26,000 prisoners. The prison camp, located in the desert 340 miles southwest of Baghdad, was a miserable scene, with detainees in yellow jumpsuits praying, reading the Quran, or talking among themselves inside their barbed-wire confines.

Camp Bucca is now infamous as the place where the organization that would become ISIS was born. Many of the prisoners were Iraqi men seized during raids by the American forces. ISIS’ top commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent time in the camp. “That was really a huge mistake, just to keep Iraqi men in one place for nothing,” says Kozyrev.

Kozyrev calls his years in Iraq an “amazing experience with horrible consequences.” In May, he returned to the country. I travelled with him throughout northern Iraq to document the new battle against ISIS, which now controls a huge section of the country. The campaign against the jihadists is making slow progress. “Unfortunately,” says Kozyrev, “there’s no sign that the problems will be fixed soon.”

Yuri Kozyrev is a photojournalist and a TIME contract photographer. He is represented by Noor.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

Jared Malsin is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief.

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