KALAK, IRAQ —
Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away.
Holding down the northern Iraq frontline are the Peshmerga in guard posts dotted along a 1,500-kilometer stretch. IS tests those defenses daily with rockets and gunfire. A full-scale attack has not happened at this particular spot for four months, but the Peshmerga are not taking any chances. They constantly gather information on IS and analyze it.
Commander Ato Zibari said when the militants mount complex attacks, they use suicide bombers to rip open the defensive line.
“They armor-plate vehicles like bulldozers and other vehicles that our weapons cannot stop,” he said.
Kurdish forces said they need more heavy artillery, such as the latest delivery of Milan anti-tank rockets from Germany, to counter the militants.
Soldiers stay vigilant, watching for advances by the Islamic State group, at the Kurdistan frontline, a 45-minute drive east of the Islamic State group stronghold of Mosul, northern Iraq. (S. Behn/VOA)
Burying into landscape
Soldiers standing in the 45-degree Celsius heat on this front line post admit IS is a powerful force with creative tactics.
Zibari said fighters from IS, or Da’esh as it is known locally, tend to operate in small groups, and have taken to hiding in trenches and tunnels to avoid being hit by coalition airstrikes.
They also take refuge in villages, knowing that coalition planes typically do not bomb civilian areas.
But the Peshmerga said their fighters have used the land to their advantage, adapting their own tactics and using snipers. Sniper Kamal Omar described how he and other snipers buried themselves into the landscape and watched the militants for five to six hours a day, tracking their movements.
Kurdistan frontline, a 45-minute drive east of the Islamic State group stronghold of Mosul, northern Iraq. (S. Behn/VOA)
Omar said the shots he was most proud of were those that hit the small vulnerable spot on the armored vehicles used by IS to attack.
“There is only one spot where you can hit the radiator and make the vehicle explode, that’s what we are proud of, and shooting them in the head and killing them, we are proud of that too,” Omar told VOA.
Taking a break from talking with his soldiers, Col. Sarbast Jihad said although some posts were quiet, IS remains a powerful force, capable of attack at any time, with a long supply of suicide bombers — mostly foreigners.
“We have their bodies on the frontlines after they blow themselves up. We have special teams who verify the bodies. Sometimes they carry ID, but also their faces, skin, beards, are different than that of Iraqis,” he said.
Mosul, Duhok, Kalak, Irbil and Shaqlawa, Iraq
But despite not having the weapons needed to confront the militants, Sarbast Jihad said his forces were ready to take the fight to the IS stronghold of Mosul, an operation the Peshmerga said already was under discussion with Baghdad and the U.S.-led coalition.
“We have our plans. As soon as we get our orders from our superiors we will attack the villages that we want. But as it is a military operation, we can’t show you the plan or how we intend to do it,” he said.
According to Zibari, any operation would involve the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army, the Shi’ite militias Hashd al Shaabi, and coalition air forces. He said there would not be any direct coordination between the Peshmerga and the militias.
Even with such determined fighters, the U.S. has warned that defeating IS will be a long and tough battle.