On the Kurdish Front Line, a Tense Night Fending Off Islamic State
Peshmerga fighters have got ISIS surrounded
Along a lonely patch of desert roughly 20 miles south of the city of Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, far away from the world’s attention, a little-known front in the war against Islamic State simmers.
While much of the media has focused on the months-long battle for Mosul and the ongoing fight in Raqqa in Syria, the small town of Tawuq has remained obscure. Outside of the town, hundreds of Peshmerga outposts — all of them perched atop small, man-made hills — stand several hundred yards apart. Fighting flares almost daily.
The men who stand watch on these mounds are Kurdistan’s first line of defense against ISIS. The roads and highways in Kurdistan are dotted with signs and posters honoring Peshmerga soldiers who have become martyrs in the service of their country, underscoring the high regard this society places on the men who risk it all to protect their fledgling nation.
Photo by the author
A narrow no-man’s-land no more than two kilometers wide separates the Kurdish lines from ISIS-held villages on the other side. The Peshmerga mans these posts in groups of 15 to 25 men.
Driving up to the outpost where I would spend the night with Peshmerga lieutenant Salam and his platoon, we passed 15-foot-tall defensive berms which the Pesh had built to obscure the dirt road from snipers. Passing each position, we were greeted with waves from the soldiers and looks of curiosity from the guard dogs.
The tired young men manning the guns of the outpost were aged beyond their years, but still offered tea and a smoke. Earlier that day, two ISIS trucks filled with fighters had attacked. The Kurds destroyed one vehicle before forcing the other to retreat. They were concerned that another attack would come that night.
Boyboy the guard dog runs up the dirt ramp to the outpost. Photo by the author
As the sun set, we could see the lights turning on in the ISIS-held buildings. The outpost dog, Boyboy, played at our feet. Large floodlights powered by generators lit up the immediate surroundings of the checkpoints, but beyond 100 yards the view into no-man’s-land melted into darkness.
The diesel generator that acted as the outpost’s power source would unnervingly cut out at various times throughout the night, plunging us into darkness and forcing us to rely completely on the moon for illumination. The small strip separating both sides featured a small ridge of tress and numerous small hills and crests — perfect terrain to navigate slowly on foot in order to launch a surprise attack from the void.
The Peshmerga lacked any night-vision equipment and, instead, rely on a single pair of binoculars to scan the edge of the darkness, hoping to detect movement that might be cause for alarm. Sitting in a firing position on the outward-facing side of the outpost, Salam stood watch and directed his soldiers to take positions on the perimeter of the outpost for the remainder of the night.
Two Peshmerga soldiers stand on the edge of the outpost after standing watch all night. Photo by the author
Salam, 27, is from Halabja, the site of the infamous 1988 chemical attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces. All three of his brothers are also Peshmerga soldiers. In February 2017, one brother was wounded in combat in Zarga, several miles away.
Most Peshmerga carry the AK-47, although they are not all of uniform issue. A Pesh’s AK could be Chinese, Romanian or Russian. In addition to their small arms, some units have PKM light machine guns, old Dushka heavy machine guns, grenades and Chinese RPGs. Pesh often buy their own ammo.
Pvt. Wasam Nawzad, also 27, handed me a Chinese-made AK-47. “You like Kalashnikov?” he asked. Overhead in the night sky, we could head helicopters flying by — most likely counterterrorism units and special forces returning from reconnaissance missions in ISIS-held areas.
The ammunition storage room on the outpost. Photo via the author
This pocket of terrorist-held territory is completely cut off. The town Hawija lies at the center. The anti-ISIS coalition reportedly plans to attack it after the coalition finishes liberating Tal Afar. These two towns make up the last areas of major ISIS resistance in Iraq.
Informants in the surrounding areas had provided intelligence to the Peshmerga that ISIS fighters were preparing to mount an attack on our position, putting the soldiers on edge. Some of the men on the outposts have relatives in the ISIS-held areas nearby, and these brave civilians often feed information on enemy activity to the Pesh.
After several hours, two vehicles appeared in the weak moonlight. They slowly navigated the narrow ravines approaching the outpost. It was two o’clock in the morning. The Peshmerga argued over the vehicles and eventually came to a consensus.
A Peshmerga soldier takes a nap using RPG launchers covered in a blanket for a pillow. Photo via the author
The soldiers fired a few tracer rounds toward the vehicles. They kept coming. The Pesh fired their Dushka, mounted on a turret in the back of a pickup truck. Now the trucks retreated. Pvt. Yadgar Kurkey, 23, was nonplussed by this brief encounter. As others kept watch, he lay down on a table in the center of the outpost, staring at the stars as he feel asleep in the cool night.
Dawn came. One industrious soldier fired up a hookah. A sense of calm settled on the front line as more of the soldiers fell asleep, one man using an RPG covered with a blanket as a pillow. As I packed up my gear, several of the men were also preparing to take their leave from the outpost and spend some time with their families. They were relieved they had survived their latest stint on the front line.
Several days after my departure, Yadgar sent me a chilling reminder of the dangers we faced that night. The Amaq new agency, an ISIS propaganda outlet, published a video from the Tawuq front line of a Peshmerga outpost being overrun. One Peshmerga soldier can be seen being shot to death by ISIS militants shouting, “Allah’ akbar.”
Three Kurdish soldiers reportedly died that night. Soon their faces will be seen by passersby across Kurdistan, immortalized in their own way as champions of their people and defenders of the free world.