KIRKUK, Iraq — Piling into a pickup truck with their AK-47 assault rifles, the Kurdish militia fighters were eager to show off the series of checkpoints they’d set up to guard the approaches to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The Kurds had long coveted Kirkuk for both historical and economic reasons, and suddenly earlier this month it fell under their control when the Iraqi army collapsed and fled in the face of a surprise offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Now, with ISIL gunmen roaming unchecked just miles from city, the famed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, has established a string of checkpoints and fortified positions intended to defend not only newly acquired Kirkuk, but also the approaches to the main Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulimaniya, which have remained more or less untouched by the horrible violence that has roiled the rest of Iraq for much of the past 11 years.
Gen. Ayoub Sa’id, the peshmerga commander in Kirkuk, who directs his forces from a former U.S. military base at the Kirkuk airport, is proud of his forces’ array. He even encouraged visiting journalists to drive south toward the ISIL front lines to inspect the peshmerga’s defenses.
But after five minutes of high-speed driving down the nearly deserted highway to visit these last lines of defense, the pickup screeched to a sudden stop and made an abrupt U-turn. There was no sign of the peshmerga, who despite their reputation as some of the best trained and most disciplined fighters in Iraq, had left their positions. The only thing standing between Kirkuk and the ISIL fighters, who control the nearby city of Tikrit and its outlying villages, was the pickup truck with its load of lightly armed fighters and a few journalists.
Confusion still reigns along the nebulous front line between the two sides. So far, ISIL and its tribal allies appear content to control Sunni Arab villages and towns and have yet to challenge the Kurds, whose mostly peaceful region backs up against the border with Iran and now spans from Iraq’s far north to Kirkuk. ISIL appears more focused on pushing toward Baghdad.
But Kirkuk, with its huge Sunni Arab population and oil wealth, is also an attractive target, and the front is tense, with near daily clashes between Kurds and ISIL as they compete for control of strategic villages and crossroads.
“Daash was down there and there was no checkpoint,” said one of the confused if slightly embarrassed fighters, using the common and disparaging term for ISIL. Just moments before, Gen. Sa’id had insisted the road was safe and had told the journalists they could visit the nonexistent checkpoint in their own car. Only reluctantly had he dispatched the armed escort after the journalists pleaded that it was unsafe.
The peshmerga has a sterling reputation for courage and discipline in battle and was a favorite ally of U.S. special forces during the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011. But according to one military contractor, who did not want to be identified because he still works with the Kurdish government, the militia has limitations that the attempt to control Kirkuk has highlighted.
“Look, these guys are good,” he said in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, where his company consults for the military. “They’re not like Iraqis; they fight for a nation they believe in and have training, experience, equipment and a good dose of discipline you rarely see in the Middle East. But they’re best fighting at home in their mountains. And they’re at their best fighting around and protecting the Kurds.”
In Kirkuk, they face a different challenge. For one, the terrain is wide open and flat. For another, they are likely to face two enemies, ISIL and the central government. The peshmerga, the consultant says, “hate Arabs, whether Sunni guys from ISIL or Shiite guys from the government. They don’t see a huge difference between the two.”
The lack of coordination on the front lines didn’t surprise him.
“The peshmerga are Kurdish and the Kurds are a clannish people,” he explained. “So while they look and act like an army, you’ll find they coordinate best in small units of guys who all know each other and are even related. They don’t do well coordinating outside this cell structure in large numbers.”
Another Western observer who spent significant time with the peshmerga during the 2003 invasion was less subtle, asking not to be identified because he still works with the Kurds.
“They’ll run the first time those ISIL gun trucks come screaming up the highway,” he said. “They coordinate by cellphones. They hate fighting on flat lands, and ISIL is faster. They’d regroup once they hit the mountains in the Kurdish areas and hold tight there, but the only reason they have Kirkuk is that ISIL clearly doesn’t want to try for it now.”
A city of more than 1 million people once dominated by Kurds but ethnically roiled by an Arabization policy imposed by Saddam Hussein that forced out many Kurdish residents and replaced them with Arabs, Kirkuk poses a thorny issue for the peshmerga. Unlike in their home areas, where peshmerga fighters are viewed as military gods, much of the population of Kirkuk sees them as dangerous outsiders.
Since the beginning of ISIL’ offensive — which began with its capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, two weeks ago — the peshmerga has yet to engage in serious combat. Most Kurdish commanders expect that won’t last and that either ISIL or the furious central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will launch an attack. Al-Maliki has all but accused the Kurds of treason for seizing Kirkuk and not confronting ISIL.
Kirkuk residents claim that law and order has completely broken down in areas of the city inhabited by Arabs or Kirkuk’s other major ethnic group, the Turkomen. The Kurds have left policing those areas to the handful of Iraqi policemen who didn’t flee their posts when the army abandoned Kirkuk.
“It’s anything goes,” according to a Turkomen resident named Timur, who asked that his last name not be used because he once worked with the American occupation and fears both the peshmerga because of his Turkish roots and ISIL for having worked with the Americans. “You can kill anyone on the street and nobody will say anything. Nobody will stop you. I carry a gun everywhere, and a bag with clothes and my passport so I can just drive away if it gets too bad. This place is not safe.”
Less than an hour after Timur spoke, a suicide bomber killed himself and two Iraqi police officers in the first suicide attack in a Kurdish-controlled area since the ISIL uprising began.
There are ominous signs of trouble. Roadside bombs planted by ISIL regularly detonate along the highway that leads to the heavily guarded airport where the Kurds are headquartered.
Still, the peshmerga are ready to fight to keep hold of Kirkuk. In the hills a few miles north of the city, a peshmerga unit has dug into the hillsides, creating bunkers to withstand mortar and small arms fire. Commanders there were eager to show they could protect the highway from a flanking attack. From the ridge line they control, they point out the ISIL front lines just six miles away. They are confident nestled into the hills the Kurds have called home for centuries.
“We control these villages along the river,” said the commanding officer in a friendly and candid briefing on the situation, only asking that his name and unit not be identified directly because the interview had not been approved by the Kurdish Defense Ministry. He pointed to a string of Kurdish and ethnic Turkomen Shiite Muslim villages that fear ISIL far more than the Kurds.
“But we can’t try and control the Sunnis around here,” he added, pointing to the Sunni heartland centered around Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, just 20 miles away.
The commander has nothing good to say about ISIL, which he refers to by its derogatory Arabic acronym.
“Daash is crazy and they’re a mix of Iraqi, Syrians, Saudis, Chechens, Pakistani, all these insane people who think they are Muslims but are just stupid and crazy. They only worship killing, not God,” he said bitterly. “And all they can do is drive around and murder people. The only way they can hold a place is if they have local Sunni allies to take over while they go off and attack something else.”
But his harshest words are for Iraq’s central government. And he repeats the same pledge heard from every Kurd interviewed in the area: Kurdistan will never surrender Kirkuk.
“Iraq is finished,” he said. “Maliki is nothing. Baghdad is finished. Now there will only be a Shiite-stan, Sunni-stan and Kurdistan.”