MAKHMUR, Iraq — Bullet-riddled walls, burned-out buildings and a hastily dug grave in this town where U.S. troops were once stationed mark the northernmost advance of Islamic State militants along one of the main highways leading into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish forces recaptured Makhmur, an oil and farming center just 40 miles south of the Kurdish capital, Irbil, in the wake of U.S. airstrikes launched this month on Islamic State positions, pushing the militants back to the town of Qarach, a 15-minute drive down the road.
Few of the 18,000 people who lived in Makhmur have returned, fearing that Islamic State militants could come back, despite the presence of superior U.S. air power.
Ibrahim Karim, part of a small peshmerga force armed with only rifles, said he and his comrades weren’t equipped to face 100 to 200 Islamic State fighters, who arrived in Makhmur in armored Humvees on Aug. 9.
Residents had fled two days earlier, and the peshmerga withdrew into mountains overlooking the town to await reinforcements, he said Saturday while guarding a checkpoint.
“Whenever we are in our mountains they can’t beat us,” Karim said.
Although Iraqi forces melted away in the face of Islamic State advances elsewhere in Iraq, the peshmerga were considered a formidable force able to stand their ground. But when Islamic State militants, who had overrun large swathes of western and central Iraq in recent months, began attacking Kurdish checkpoints in the north, the pehsmerga found themselves unable to resist against the Islamic State’s more sophisticated weaponry, much of it seized from the Iraqi army.
The potential threat to Irbil, where U.S. diplomats and a small number of U.S. military are based led President Barack Obama to authorize airstrikes to protect U.S. interests as well as thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect who were driven from their towns by the militants and stranded on a mountain top. But airstrikes have intensified in recent days, helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces regain territory, including the critical Mosul Dam.
In the center of Makhmur, a pile of blackened metal and corrugated iron is all that’s left of a row of shops that, Karim claimed, had been full of Islamic State fighters when they were struck by a U.S. airstrike.
“Their bodies were only dust afterwards,” he said.
It was unclear whether the damage to the shops was caused by an airstrike or some other kind of explosion. The U.S. Central Command did not respond to requests for confirmation of an airstrike in Makhmur.
Pointing to a mound of earth near a building pock-marked with bullet holes, Karim said:
“A Daash fighter is buried there,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Also helping to push back the Islamic State militants here were fighters with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group. PKK fighters have been battling Islamic State militants in Syria and the group is outlawed in Turkey. PKK fighters have established a base in Makhmur. The town was also home for years to thousands of Kurdish refugees from Turkey.
On Saturday, PKK troops drove around in a Chevy Silverado pick-up that, they said, was captured from the Islamic State.
Somebody had covered the vehicle in mud as camouflage but a little water poured onto the driver’s side door revealed the black flag of the Islamic State.
Karim said the extremists’ armored vehicles were difficult to defeat.
“The Humvees are bullet proof so it was very hard to fight them,” he said. “We kept shooting them but they kept coming and then they blew themselves up.”
In their advance through Iraq, Islamic State militants have seized weaponry and materiel from Iraqi forces, some of it left to them by departing U.S. forces. During the Iraq war, U.S. forces were stationed at Camp Crazy Horse, a forward operating base that they turned over to Iraq forces in December 2005.
It was not clear whether the humvees and other armored vehicles seen in Makhmur Saturday were American.
The Kurdish forces in Makhmur have since acquired a large armored truck and at least one of their own armored Humvees.
Ismael Soleh, 56, one of the PKK fighters who helped drive out the Islamic State, said one of his comrades was killed and 10 wounded in the battle for the town. Half a dozen injured PKK fighters lay in a field hospital in Makhmur on Saturday.
Two residents were also killed by the militants, Soleh said.
Soran Sabir said he found five bodies in the street when he came back a few days ago. His motorcycle shop had been looted by the militants.
“Daash likes to move around on motorcycles,” he said. “They stole three from my shop.”
Bakhtiyar Faisal, 35, a teacher stood near a group of shops in the town square contemplating the damage.
“There is a crisis here now,” he said.
Those who have returned don’t feel safe because the Islamic State is so close and they don’t have enough to drink because the militants poisoned the town’s water supply, he said.
Kurdish residents of Makhmur fled to Irbil, but several hundred Arabs there welcomed the Islamic State, Faisal said. When Kurdish forces returned, those Arabs fled south with the extremists, he said.
It may take a while before other Kurdish residents feel safe enough to come home, Faisal said. “People are scared to come back because Daash is so close.”
Zaynab Olivo contributed to this report.