Kurdish fighters step in to protect Iraq residents from ISIS

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier mans a checkpoint south of Kirkuk, Iraq, near the village of Maktab Khaled, on Saturday, June 21, 2014. When Iraqi security forces left Kirkuk, peshmerga soldiers took control and now have checkpoints.
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier mans a checkpoint south of Kirkuk, Iraq, near the village of Maktab Khaled, on Saturday, June 21, 2014. When Iraqi security forces left Kirkuk, peshmerga soldiers took control and now have checkpoints.
Photo by Ted Nieters
| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 11:30 p.m.

MAKTAB KHALED, Iraq — Kurdish flags ripple over a dusty checkpoint south of the oil city of Kirkuk, where soldiers deploy behind earthen mounds and sandbags.

This is the Kurds' front line against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the al-Qaida splinter group that has stormed across northern and western Iraq backed by Sunni militants.

Iraqi soldiers fled from the area as ISIS approached. A few discarded uniforms and helmets are scattered around freshly dug foxholes.

“Just past that bridge is ISIS,” said one young soldier in an older American army uniform and a yellow-and-black scarf, pointing about a mile away. Asked whether he fears the terrorist group, which is known for beheading captives, he replied: “No. I'm a peshmerga.”

Kurdish peshmerga — “those who face death” — have their own reputation as fierce fighters.

For more than a decade, they held back former dictator Saddam Hussein's army despite its superior numbers, tanks, helicopters and chemical weapons. During the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the peshmerga fought alongside American forces.

Now they stand between ISIS and fellow Kurds, the non-Arab minority in a semi-autonomous portion of Iraq bordering Turkey and Iran.

Their gains on the battlefield could lead to Kurdish independence.

The Kurdish 1st Brigade has seized Kirkuk, a city that many Kurds refer to as “our Jerusalem.”

Kurds — divided among Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey by European powers after World War I — have longed for a separate state; some think Iraq's sectarian split could give them that chance.

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told an interviewer last week that “the time is here” for Kurds “to determine their future.”

Back-and-forth battle

“When Mosul fell to ISIS, our army went on red alert,” Col. Lateef Saber said in a prefab container that has been converted into an office.

ISIS, he said, has “no stable positions, just mobile units. ... It's a back-and-forth battle. They stay five kilometers (three miles) away. Then they attack us and run back.

“If we capture an ISIS fighter, we turn them over to a higher authority. If ISIS captures us, they will slaughter us.”

American-made Humvees with Iraqi army insignia, parked around the checkpoint, were seized from Iraqi troops by ISIS but recaptured by peshmerga, Saber said.

Behind him, an advertisement on a television set extolled the Iraqi army's prowess.

Saber, sitting in a spot that the army abandoned, acknowledged that the army “is powerful, and we know that.” But, he said, its soldiers “have no loyalty to the country. They had a lot of training and equipment from the Americans. If we had that, we would be much stronger.”

The idea of his men's fleeing is unthinkable.

“Saddam used chemical weapons on the Kurds, and we didn't retreat. And now you want us to retreat over a small group like ISIS?”

‘We like Americans'

Headquartered in an abandoned railway station, 1st Brigade Gen. Sherko Fatih said he has lost men in “large battles” and is awaiting “the order to move against ISIS.”

The provincial governor and other officials asked for Kurdish protection, he said, when an Iraqi division of 17,000 soldiers fled after fighting ISIS for less than 30 minutes.

“I personally called the commander of that division to say, ‘Stay and fight side by side with us against the terrorists.' But they didn't answer my calls,” Fatih said.

“They don't have the spirit to fight against the terrorists. The smallest fight, and they collapse.”

In Kirkuk, “we aren't just defending the Kurds; we are defending Arabs and Turkmen, and the Assyrians and Chaldean Christians — anyone who is under our control,” he said.

That city, a mosaic of those religious and ethnic factions, is “100 percent safe” from ISIS, he assured. After a suicide bomber killed three people and wounded dozens there earlier in the week, more troops deployed there.

Many peshmerga are proud to have fought or deployed alongside American forces. The general fondly recalls Gens. Anthony Cucolo, Patrick Donahue and others with whom he served. Saber worked with U.S. special forces until they withdrew in 2010.

“Do the Americans like the Kurds?” one soldier asked. “We like the Americans.”

At the checkpoint, Saber walked onto the bridge to talk with approaching motorists about the situation on the ISIS-held side of the river. Some of his men watched from a sandbagged rail line.

“ISIS is putting explosives on the roads over there,” he said, pointing toward the town of Hawija, where gunfire is often heard. “All these villages have civilians, and we are defending them.”

As the sun faded on the horizon, he looked back at his dug-in troops.

“They don't sleep in the night,” he said. “Because this is our land, and we will defend it.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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