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Iraq's Kurdish troops vow to keep ISIL onslaught at bay

Kurdish Peshmargas seem confident they can hold their ground against ISIL despite the Iraqi army's retreat
Peshmargas in Iraqi Kurdistan say they are not scared of ISIL fighters (AA)

ERBIL, Iraq - The stretch of highway that runs from the town of Khabat in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region to the last checkpoint under Kurdish control is littered with small derelict towns, tiny kebab shops and cattle idling on the side of the road.

Cars crammed with families, mattresses, air conditioning and refrigerators drive in the opposite direction, leaving behind a conflict that has seen the swift fall of Mosul from the hands of the Iraqi military forces to those of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the flight of approximately 500,000 civilians.

According to UNHCR an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 internally displaced persons have made their way north to the Kurdistan Region and while a number of them are currently residing in one of the two camps set up by the Kurdistan Regional Government, many more have entered the cities.

Gokjali checkpoint is located in Iraq’s disputed territories and is the final barrier between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) controlled areas of Nineveh Province and the largely insulated Kurdistan Region. There, dozens of Peshmerga, or Kurdish regional government fighters, patrol the tract of land that lies between them and the ISIL checkpoint, a mere 700 meters down the road.

A member of the Kurdish security forces (Asayish) was adamant that he saw the infamous black flag of the militant group from the Peshmerga checkpoint. But sand from the desert has now settled and the black flag is nowhere to be seen.

Despite the proximity to the Islamic militants, a sense of calm reigned over the checkpoint. The soldiers seemed relaxed and not overly concerned about the potential risks less than 20km down the road.

“We are not scared of anyone, only of God,” smiled a young soldier before asking to be photographed. The men were happy to spare a few minutes and show off a graveyard of Iraqi army vehicles abandoned by fleeing soldiers on Tuesday, in a painful exhibition of Baghdad’s military failure.

Iraqi army uniforms laid strewn across the floor and in the battered vehicles bags of uneaten bread and cigarette buds carpeted the car seats. “Why did the Iraqi army leave? We would never do that,” said one Peshmerga commander, standing next to an abandoned vehicle.

“The Iraqi army has no principles, they are not fighting for a cause, if they believed in something they would have stayed,” said Brigadier general Mahmood. Many analysts have said that the army lacks cohesion and is bound by sectarian rather than national loyalties.

This likely prompted the mass desertion of largely Shia soldiers from the Sunni-majority areas which they were supposed to defend.

The lack of confidence in the Iraqi army was clear to see and the senior Peshmerga commander confidently dismissed the suggestion that Kurdistan’s military strength might be hard hit by the Iraqi military’s withdrawal.

“We have enough troops, we have the ability and we have the power. Our armies are well-equipped and well-trained,” said the brigadier, adding that the ISIL troop stationed down the road had not moved towards them.

“There are no clashes between them and us, we stay in our places and they stay in theirs,” he said matter-of-factly. This has not been the case in other disputed areas like Kirkuk, where on Thursday clashes between ISIL and Kurdish forces allegedly resulted in 14 security personnel being wounded.

Despite the seemingly calm atmosphere at Gokjali checkpoint, security measures have been visibly stepped up. The closer one gets to the Kurdish capital Erbil, the longer and slower the checkpoint queues are, although much of this may be due to the influx of people fleeing the ISIL advance. While some have managed to gain access, there have been widespread reports of some people being turned back by the Kurdish authorities.

At Khazer, the penultimate checkpoint before entering Erbil, uniformed and plain-clothes security forces could be seen thoroughly checking every vehicle as hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons made their way into Erbil.

The degree to which local communities in ISIL-controlled areas support the militants remains unclear. However, it does appear that the loose alliance of ISIL-led groups which have taken up arms against the government of Iraqi President Nouri Maliki does enjoy support from certain sections of the population.

“We don’t want Maliki’s troops…we’re ok with the militants. In the past we were besieged, we couldn’t move, the militants have opened all the streets and now life is ok,” said Qais who claimed to be travelling to Erbil to meet friends and not fleeing Mosul.

“They [ISIL] are people of Mosul and they said ‘if you stay we will protect you, if you leave we will let you’” he added.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s head of the department of foreign relations, Falah Mustafa, told Middle East Eye:  

“We are on alert and we were expecting the situation […] there is a security risk in dealing with these people, that is why the decision is to have them somewhere closer to Nineveh [province] instead of Erbil or Duhok, so that we will not be vulnerable to any kind of security risk.”

The Nineveh province is west of Kurdistan and houses Mosul, which is under ISIL control, while Duhok is a town some 50km north of Mosul and close to the Turkish border.  

Iraqi Kurdistan and disputed territory (AFP)
Iraqi Kurdistan and disputed territory (AFP)

Can the peace last?

Experts have said that while ISIL has made considerable territorial gains, they are not as well-equipped or tactically as strong as the Peshmerga, making it unlikely for them to encroach on Kurdish territory.

“We are fully committed to the defence of territory administered by the KRG as well as areas of the Kurdistan Region outside of KRG administration,” said KRG spokesperson Safeen Dizayee in a statement.

“At the moment it doesn't look as though ISIL is willing to launch an offensive against Kurdish held territory. Should they try, they would find in the Peshmerga a well-disciplined and ideologically committed force, quite different from that which they encountered in Mosul,” Michael Stephens, deputy director of independent think tank Rusi Qatar, told Middle East Eye.

Yet despite political and expert reassurance, there is a sense of abandonment on the drive towards the final Kurdish checkpoint. The Kurdish flag is nowhere to be seen and many understand that while this is de facto Kurdish-controlled territory, the risk of Islamic insurgency is greater. One soldier at Khazer checkpoint about 30 minutes’ drive from Erbil ran his thumb over his neck, in a macabre warning of what he feared might happen.

The region’s tectonic shifts and destabilizing sectarian dynamics may have allowed the Kurds to gain control of swaths of territory in just a few days and win back disputed areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk, but Iraq’s troubles are as much a potential threat to Kurdistan, as they are a possible turning point.

“The Kurds now control most of the areas disputed between Baghdad and Erbil,” said Wladimir van Wilngenburg, a columnist for news website Al-Monitor currently reporting from the region.

“These are the areas from which the Iraqi army has fled. The Kurds got handed all the Iraqi army positions on a silver platter.”

Back in Gokjali an armed vehicle parks beside an abandoned Iraqi one. On it a very young soldier proudly holds a rocket propelled grenade. Less than a kilometer separates the Kurdish soldiers from the fierce ISIL-led army that is currently making its way towards the Iraqi capital, but their reality seems worlds away from the images of fear and destruction that have made international headlines over the past week.

“We don’t want this country to be ruined, to collapse, the people of Iraq have suffered a lot. We don’t want to suffer anymore,” said Brigadier general Mahmood as a group of soldiers gathered around him. “We want a stable Iraq everywhere not only here.” 

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