At the front: Iraq’s Kurds bolster defense

The bridge not far from the village of Khrabarut doesn’t look like much – a single concrete track over a drainage canal about 100 yards long – but it’s turned into a pivotal landmark in the fight between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State southwest of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“Whoever controls that bridge controls the area right now,” said one Kurdish fighter at a nearby checkpoint before pointing off in the distance to a plume of flame where an oil well burned off excess natural gas. “And that’s why.”

The bridge – unnamed and probably little considered before the Islamic State swept through the area seven months ago – fell to the extremists last summer when Iraqi troops in the area fled without firing a shot as the Islamic State swept south. Kurdish forces reclaimed it last fall in a series of back and forth engagements. Now the Kurdish troops don’t expect much help from the Iraqi military to fend off new incursions from the Islamic State, which they refer to as Daash, an Arabic acronym.

“When my men and I arrived at this base to help fight Daash we were told by the Iraqi army based here that Kurdish help wasn’t needed,” Gen. Nader Abdullah, commander of the 2nd Brigade, said of events last June. “They did say we could spend the night and have dinner, if we paid them.”

They were gone the next day, Abdullah recounted, without having fired a shot at the enemy. The base was looted by Islamic State fighters before the Kurdish forces were able to drive them out a few months later – with the help of U.S. airstrikes and an influx of heavy weapons from donor countries, including Germany.

Now the bridge and a nearby ridge have become a main Kurdish position where they hope to block any Islamic State push on Kirkuk, a city that was once bitterly contested between Iraq’s rival Arab and Kurdish ethnic groups but is now in Kurdish hands. The Kurds intend to keep it that way.

“The problem is there is no more Iraq,” said the sector commander, Dr. Kamal Kirkuki, a medical doctor by training and former member of the Kurdish Parliament who’s been a fighter in the Kurdish peshmerga militia for his entire adult life and once fought alongside Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who was Iraq’s president from 2005 until last year.

“Sunni, Shiite and Kurds can’t live together anymore. We make for a bad country together,” Kirkuki said. “It’s time to stop pretending like we are good brothers and make a change. Maybe with time we can go from being a bad country and become good neighbors.”

Certainly, the Kurdish forces here aren’t expecting any help from Baghdad’s central government or its army in holding the Islamic State at bay. Just a few miles past the bridge, a unit of Kurdish forces is quickly digging into a huge earthen berm, one of many berms and deep trenches that lattice this dry and flat landscape to prevent the Islamic State from flanking their positions.

The commander at the scene, who was overseeing the unloading of crates of heavy and medium machine gun ammunition and refused to give his name, found the arrival of an American journalist unsettling. His position, usually protected by a few dozen fighters in shifts, was filling up with peshmerga and Iraqi Interior Ministry paramilitary forces in anticipation of an attack. It’s another attempt, the commander said, to capture the bridge.

“You shouldn’t be here. You don’t have permission, and Daash is preparing to attack this position. Our scouts have seen them massing maybe 20 vehicles and hundreds of men for an attack,” he said. “You really need to leave.” Then he gave directions to the main base, where the journalist found Abdullah, and, eventually, Kirkuki.

Coalition air power has made such a massing of Islamic State fighters rare these days, Abdullah observed. U.S. airstrikes have forced the Islamic State to abandon its previous, and highly effective, tactic of throwing its opponents into confused terror with massed groups of pickups swarming behind a wave of suicide car bombs. Now, because airstrikes target such clusters of men, the Islamic State uses snipers and mortars to harass and probe peshmerga lines, looking for weaknesses.

Responding with air power to such probes is a cumbersome process that involves calling a command center in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, then getting approval from commanders at U.S. Central Command, followed by diverting an aircraft – if any are available – to the scene.

“This war would be over in just a week or two if we had U.S. special forces on our front lines to pick targets and call the planes directly,” said Abdullah. “But at least now we know Daash can’t break through our lines and threaten Kirkuk.”

It’s clear from the flat landscape, straight roads and lack of troops behind his position that an Islamic State breakthrough would be hard to stop before it reached the bridge, and months of careful fighting behind coalition air support might turn worthless in under an hour if the Kurds at the berm fail.

Kirkuki’s English was soft-spoken and meticulous as he explained new regulations he’d put in place requiring journalists to get approval before heading to the front lines. When told that an Iranian Kurdish force fighting in the mountains had approved the journalist’s presence, Kirkuki immediately and candidly decided that such a visit wasn’t in anyone’s best interest.

“The Iranian brothers are fighting day and night and it is very dangerous, too dangerous for a journalist,” he said. “We are concerned for your safety, and, to be honest, the Iranians are doing some things that we don’t wish to see reported.”

When asked what those un-reportable things were, the doctor replied only, “Military things.”

“We have to be very careful, because Daash is always trying to find our exact positions on the ridges and hills and send infiltrators into Kirkuk to commit acts of terrorism,” he said. “A few days ago, more than 200 refugees from the Arab side attempted to enter our sector, and I decided to refuse to let them into Kirkuk. Maybe in their hearts many of (the Arabs) are like me and want the same thing, but too many of them are with (the Islamic State). So I told them, ‘It is safer for all of us if you do not enter.’ ”

About three miles away, exhausted peshmerga fighters were eating a simple lunch of boiled meat, bread and white rice. One fighter explained his ravenous appetite.

“I’ve been on the front lines for three days and haven’t eaten more than some crackers and tea,” he said, giving his name as Ali. He said he was a Kurd from nearby Kirkuk. “It’s so cold and I am so hungry, this is the best meal I’ve eaten in my life,” he added with a laugh.