Those Who Face Death
“Do you see how I shoot him? You brother of a bitch. This is not fair. I don’t have a sniper rifle. It’s not fair.” Captain Abdul Khadir hurled epithets and 7.62 rounds at a group of Islamic State snipers perched in houses across the street. “Son of a bitch! God knows I hit him!” he screamed again, taking another shot. I kept quiet, taking note of his wide-brimmed sombrero and droopy black mustache. His getup made him look more like Pancho Villa than Peshmerga.
The Peshmerga are the security forces for the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Their name translates to “Those Who Face Death.” Captain Khadir is an intelligence officer with their Second Battalion, Third Brigade. In early July 2014, I embedded with his unit in Jalawla, a small town 80 miles northeast of Baghdad.
The battle for Jalawla was a seesaw affair. Sometimes it was the “Pesh” riding high. At other times, the fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State were in charge.
It was my first glimpse of combat in Iraq’s newest “old” war, a long-simmering conflict built on the deep ethnic and racial animosities between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish groups. Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the instability was again brought to a full boil.
If the fight’s outcome had been determined by insults alone, Khadir would’ve crushed his opposition. But he hadn’t connected with his target—every time he fired, his quarry “answered” back, shooting into the beleaguered Sharook Middle School that served as the Second Battalion’s makeshift headquarters. I felt the sniper rounds pinging the lip of the roof and leaned against the wall for cover. Some flew over my head; others lodged in the concrete behind me.
Earlier, one Peshmerga had taken a bullet through the hand. Another was nearly blinded when a ricochet chipped a shard of concrete into his eyeball.
During the firefight, I saw a 25-year-old named Anwar Saleh lying bandaged on a stretcher. A bullet had passed through his thigh, the only exposed part of his body. Had it hit his femoral artery, he would have died, bleeding out in four minutes.
When the firefight reached a fever pitch, another officer on the rooftop with me pointed to where the Islamic State’s rounds were hitting. He made an “OK” sign with his hand, indicating the small diameters of the bullet holes in the wall. “Five-five-six,” he said, meaning he thought the rounds were coming from a rifle that fired the NATO 5.56×45 caliber. These bullets possibly came from an American-made M16 or M4. Even the sound was different. When the sniper fired at us, it was a high-pitched crack like a whip, as opposed to the flat, low ka-ka-ka-kaaa sound of Khadir’s AK-47.
If they were shooting at us with M16s, it showed both the depth and breadth of the Islamic State’s superior firepower. It was an advantage gained in part from the sad fact that the American-supplied Iraqi Army had fled Mosul with their pants down, abandoning more than a full military division’s worth of equipment, which was promptly seized by the Islamic State. It included big, garish weapons like tanks, artillery, and mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, but also a massive stockpile of highly accurate, American-manufactured small arms that could prove even deadlier in the hands of Islamic State fighters.
Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority has been disenfranchised ever since the US toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and set the stage for a Shia-majority government, a government many critics of the day contended was just as corrupt and heavy-handed as the former dictator’s. The Sunni militant group formerly known as ISIS (or ISIL), fighting to overthrow the Shia Alawite government of Bashar al Assad in Syria, looked east and saw an opportunity with fellow disgruntled Sunnis living in Iraq.
In early January, they began crossing the border, forming alliances with some Baathist groups who’d once boasted connections to Saddam Hussein. By the end of May, ISIS controlled much of Anbar Province in western Iraq, including Fallujah. Human rights groups estimated that at least half a million Iraqis had fled their homes.
This past summer, ISIS scored its biggest victory, capturing Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, with only 3,000 fighters. A full Iraqi Army division—up to 15,000 soldiers—fled with barely a fight, leaving Mosul, as well as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, completely unprotected.
A blitzkrieg of other attacks followed, against towns like Sinjar and Tal Afar. The brutality of ISIS’s methods was amplified by internet videos of mass executions, crucifixions, and beheadings. An air of invincibility and terror surrounded the group.
After erasing the borders between Iraq and Syria, and amassing an army of an estimated 30,000 soldiers, ISIS declared a new caliphate—a sovereign state claiming authority over all faithful Muslims. The 1 million Iraqis displaced from their homes seemed to disagree.
Emboldened, the Islamic State marched farther south toward Baghdad and east into Kurdish territories as well. The Kurds pushed back. They sent Peshmerga forces to secure the oil resources of Kirkuk, a city the Kurds have always considered part of Kurdistan and their historical birthright.
The Kurdistan Regional Government, on the other hand, had been begging all summer for US arms support to fight the common enemy of ISIS—to no avail. But that wasn’t the first time. There is a long history of the US shortchanging the Kurds.
In 1975, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops were unable to effectively control Kurdish territory or defeat the Peshmerga, in large part because of the direct assistance the Kurds were getting from Iran, then still ruled by American ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But when Hussein and the Shah made a deal with American support, Iran stopped helping the Kurds and the Iraqi dictator quickly moved in, crushing the Kurdish resistance.
At the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, President George H. W. Bush’s administration urged both the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north to rise up in rebellion against Saddam Hussein. But when they did, the US gave them no support other than enforcing no-fly zones, allowing Hussein to remain in power.
The US’s third and final betrayal of the Kurds came after Hussein was overthrown in the form of a US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Instead of allowing the Kurds to form an independent state, the US pressured them to remain in their shotgun marriage with Iraq, which now had a new Shia-run government.
This summer, the US was resistant to giving the Peshmerga weapons. Officials were nervous that arming the Kurds might embolden them to finally secede from the rest of Iraq. 1 And now that the Kurds again controlled Kirkuk and its oil after the Iraqi Army fled, there was little reason for them to stay.
Still, the US continued to pressure the Peshmerga to remain in the union as the best hope of a native resistance against the Islamic State. I’d come to Jalawla to see if this storied former guerrilla group turned Peshmerga army had what it took to stop the Caliphate of Hate from spreading across Iraq.
1 The Islamic State’s beheading of American journalist James Foley seemed to be the tipping point for the United States. With the execution, the Islamic State had not just crossed the line—they had danced on it for all the world to see. In early August, President Obama ordered airstrikes to stop the Islamic State’s advance toward the Kurdistan capital of Erbil and also to help a coalition of Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army commandos take back the Mosul Dam from Islamic State fighters. The airstrikes have since expanded to other targets in Iraq and to the Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.
I landed in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, on July 4, 2014. It was America’s 238th birthday, and a week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The last time I had visited Iraq was in 2006, when the Erbil International Airport was a single-terminal shack. Driving through the city, I barely recognized anything. Commercial and residential construction was taking place on every block. I passed large, Western-style malls and multi-story hotels, driving along an eight-lane beltway that would soon be connected by a Los Angeles-style cloverleaf overpass. I wanted to see the stream of refugees the Islamic State had created with their advance into Iraq.
The Khazir refugee camp is 40 minutes from the city center. There, thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul, Tal Afar, Sin Jar, and other northern and western towns camped in the desert heat. Hundreds more were coming every day. The fortunate ones who arrived early occupied tents provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Others were living out of their cars or trucks.
I arrived in the early evening, just as the sun was dropping below the horizon, taking the desert from a boil to a simmer. Kurds in pickup trucks were hauling watermelons and blocks of ice, tossing them off the back. Boys chased after them, hoping to score a prize for their families. As we wandered around the camp, people swarmed around us, eager to tell their stories.
“My cousin was a policeman, and when everyone fled, he stayed at the station and tried to fight,” said a Turkmen from Mosul named Hajib Mustafa Mohamed. “Daesh 2 captured him, cut his head off, and threw his body in the street. They found his cell phone and started calling me. ‘If you’re man enough, come get the body,’ they said.” Mustafa left Mosul before he could learn if anyone retrieved his cousin’s corpse.
Many we spoke to in the camp were Sunnis, who believed that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government of Nouri al Maliki was to blame for their most recent troubles. But they also weren’t happy with the Islamic State.
Twenty-three-year-old Oday Saadun, also from Mosul, said he, his wife, father, and brother had been living in a tent at the refugee camp for a month. “We are afraid of both sides,” he explained. “We left because of the bombing by the Iraqi Army, but Daesh was also bombing randomly.” He wasn’t confident the Iraqi government forces would be able to take back the city any time soon.
Abdul Hadi Mustafa, his wife, and seven children had arrived only the night before from Tal Afar, a city close to the Syrian border. “We heard the mortar shells, so my neighbor and I, a schoolteacher, went outside to watch,” he said. “A mortar exploded not far from us and wounded my neighbor in the shoulder. We took him to the hospital, but most of the staff had already left. The doctor who was there said that a major blood vessel had been hit. It was beyond his ability to help.”
Mustafa learned later that the schoolteacher was flown by an Iraqi Army helicopter to Baghdad and survived. But Mustafa said he had had enough. After a day of shelling, he fled the city for this refugee camp.
2 “Daesh” is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. According to Arab linguists, “Daesh” also sounds like a term meaning “one who crushes something underfoot or one who sows discord” and usually has a negative connotation for those choosing to use it.
Peshmerga soldiers pose with their weapons in an open pickup truck.
I returned to the camp again the next evening. Within 24 hours, the population seemed to have doubled. Families were camped out on the roadside, and when the Kurdish pickup trucks arrived with food and ice, there were stampedes of men and women desperate to grab anything they could.
As the number of refugees increased every day, more Peshmerga soldiers were needed to help keep order. Some of them used sections of rubber hose or electronic stun guns to keep the refugees from overrunning the trucks. Hundreds of hands reached over the sides of the truck railings, grabbing at plastic bags full of food from local restaurants, or chunks of ice meant to combat the unrelenting heat.
The situation in the tent camps was calmer. The people there had settled into a more sustainable rhythm after a month or more living as refugees. We found Oday, one of the young men we’d spoken with the day before, filling a bucket with dirt he used to spread on the outside edges of his family’s tent. “A girl was stung by a scorpion in another part of the camp,” he told us. Dirt was a barrier against them or snakes seeking warmth and moisture inside.
Oday invited us into his tent, which had become home to his wife, children, and parents, as well as his brother Abd and Abd’s wife and children. It was not what I would have imagined. Though I’m sure it was far from the comfort of their lost home, the tent was spacious, and the floor was covered with carpets and mats to keep them off the dirt.
There was a large propane stove used for cooking, and a 20-inch television with dozens of channels piped in from a portable dish outside the tent. One of their daughters, who was developmentally disabled, watched cartoons on the screen while the rest of the family sat in a semicircle on the floor eating a dinner of rice and vegetables from Styrofoam containers they’d received from a local charity.
Oday’s father, Saadun Lafta, said the family had left Mosul more than a month ago. They began walking at 1 AM and arrived in the refugee camp at 3 PM the same day.
They were Sunni Arabs. Saadun said he’d been a sergeant in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein and fought in the 1980-88 war against Iran. Like his son, Saadun believed there was equal blame to go around.
“Iraq is on the verge of destruction,” he said. “The Sunnis and the Shias won’t negotiate, and they’re both going to lose.” He added that the Americans also had a key role in creating their predicament.
“They said they came here to find weapons of mass destruction. They didn’t find any. Then they destroyed the army, and the country. Then they just left us alone.”
Despite their current hardships, Saadun was adamant that the country should not be partitioned along religious and ethnic lines—Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. “We are one people, one country,” he said. “With a new government, we can survive.” At that moment, it certainly didn’t seem likely.
After seeing the Khazir refugee camp, we drove southeast, winding past the Dukan River and the majestic Piramagrun Mountain, headed toward Kurdistan’s second-largest city, Sulaymaniyah.
Our first stop was a former Iraqi Army post called Banmaqan. The base is located on a hilltop separating the former smuggler’s village of Chamchamal from the oil-producing Kirkuk. In the 90s, Banmaqan was a constant source of fear for the locals. The Iraqi Army used it to fire artillery into Chamchamal, and residents worried that Saddam Hussein could reach out and crush them whenever he had a bad day.
In 2003, when airstrikes signaled the start of a US-led war in Iraq, I was working as a reporter for CNN. I watched from the roof of a rented house in Chamchamal as American warplanes picked away at Banmaqan with 500- and 1,000-pound bombs.
A day after those airstrikes, local Peshmerga fighters guided us to a hilltop to see the damage. Artillery emplacements were cratered into the earth, and the outpost barracks were all splintered wood and twisted metal. We saw what looked like dried blood splashed against the flat rocks and sandbags in one of the foxholes on the hilltop, but there were no bodies. I did a series of live reports from a fresh 20-foot crater.
Today, Banmaqan’s hilltop is a picnic spot, overgrown with grass and weeds. I walked around the ridge and tried to remember 2003, the adrenaline rush I felt for a war just beginning. A war that now, in a different form, threatens to engulf the entire region. Something caught my eye: a small cylinder pressed into the earth. It was a spent 7.62mm shell, ammo from an AK-47 fired long ago.
I pried it loose and held it in my hand. This tiny, rusting thing connected the violence of the past to the present. The echo of this round, I knew, was still being heard.
The Khazir camp, a 40-minute drive from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, is home to thousands of refugees, like this girl, who fled Islamic State attacks.
Jalawla is one of the most strategic fronts of the fight between the Islamic State and the Kurdish Peshmerga. If controlled by the Islamic State, it could become a back door to invade Baghdad only two hours south. I felt it was imperative to see what was happening in Jalawla, but to get there, I needed the help of one of the most influential and connected men in the region: Sheik Mohamed Shakeli.
The sheik is a former Peshmerga commander and now an informal adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government. He lives several miles from the burgeoning Kurdish town of Khalar, just north of Jalawla. Fortunately for me, he was a family friend of my interpreter, Mohamed Jalizada. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at his home, set on the edge of a bountiful 13-acre orchard. Here, in the middle of the scorching Garmian desert, was an oasis. Thick clusters of green grapes hung heavy from their vines. Rows of fruit trees bore lemons and pomegranates and olive branches. His orchard held the promise of a bountiful harvest, if not a peaceful future.
Here, in a small but important way, Kurds and Arabs were living side by side. The sheik’s man in charge was an Arab, as were the shepherds and tenant farmers allowed to live and work on his property, sharing part of what they produced.
Not so long ago, this orchard was a killing ground. Just 30 miles to the south, Jalawla still was.
The plot had been in the sheik’s family for generations. In 1988, the land was taken from them, during Saddam Hussein’s al Anfal campaign, a genocidal military operation aimed at wiping out Kurdish resistance to Iraqi rule. Military-aged males were rounded up, executed, and buried in mass graves. Kurdish officials believe that 182,000 Kurds were killed in the nearly yearlong operation, while Human Rights Watch puts the figures between 50 and 100,000.
“Al Anfal” means “the spoils of war.” It is also the name of the eighth chapter of the Qur’an, which tells the story of the followers of the prophet Muhammad looting the lands of nonbelievers. Some analysts say the name was chosen by the regime to cloak the killing and pillaging in some kind of religious justification. Which is not unlike current claims made by the Islamic State militants in their persecution and mass executions of Shias, Christians, and Yazidis during their summer offensive.
The sheik, a leader of a Garmian unit of Peshmerga, had escaped to the mountains. In 1991, when the Kurds rose up against the regime at the urging of the United States during the first Gulf War, he returned to his home. When he arrived to reclaim his land, he found an Iraqi commander and his officers living there. Instead of taking revenge, he spared their lives, allowing them to retreat back to their home base.
When I asked him why, he simply shrugged. “What is the point? There had been enough killing.”
Today the sheik is thin, almost frail. He’s a mere shadow of the robust guerrilla commander we saw in framed photos on the walls of his home. Still, even slightly stooped and fingering his prayer beads while walking through his orchards at dusk, he radiated the collected confidence of a man who has lived justly and was now enjoying his earthly rewards. When he saw a ripe fruit he plucked it and put it in my hand. The heat had finally subsided, and the land was tinted in a soft, reddish hue that seemed to arrest time and helped me to imagine that I was in a much more peaceful place than Iraq in the summer of 2014.
This place was what the Bush neocons dreamed about, too, when they considered the most hopeful endgame of their 2003 invasion. It was a prosperous, peaceful Iraq, rich in both bounty and forgiveness.
But Sheik Shakeli’s orchard was the exception that proved the rule. It was a mirage in an ongoing war zone that insists Iraq’s three major ethnic and religious groups will likely never live together in peace. While sweet fruit may grow in this small orchard, the vast desert harvests only misery and destruction.
The sheik, like most Iraqi Kurds, had complicated feelings when it came to the United Sates. “The Kurds received America with flowers, but the Americans neglected them or even rejected them,” said Sheik Shakeli. “But when there’s this kind of pressure, policies can change.”
The kind of pressure he was speaking of was, of course, the rise of the Islamic State. While he felt the Kurds could hold their own against ISIS, the problem wasn’t going to go away. “We can’t negotiate or live with them, and we shouldn’t,” he said. “But while we can protect ourselves for now, it’s an international problem for the whole region. It’s not only us who has to deal with it. Especially now with the proclamation of the caliphate, which is drawing people from all over the world—anyone who believes in this illusory concept. The regional states are also threatened by movement—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Iran.”
He also believed that the threat would quickly grow beyond the Middle East. “I think they can widen their frontiers very soon. I think the West will be the next target. They have the manpower, resources, tools, and communications to do it.”
We were invited to participate in Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. There would be important men from the community attending, including an Arab sheik and his sons, who had fled the Sunni-Shia violence of Baquba years earlier for the safety of Kurdish-controlled Khalar.
The Arab sheik led the Kurdish sheik and the rest of the men in prayer before the meal. It was another small contradiction to the mantra I had heard from so many during my journey: Kurds and Arabs cannot live together in peace.
At the end of the prayers, we dined on a sumptuous feast, featuring chicken, okra, rice, and naan made from ingredients grown in the orchard. After the meal, Sheik Shakeli quietly made arrangements for us to meet the people necessary to get to Jalawla.
Former Peshmerga leader Sheik Mohamed Shakeli owns an orchard where he grows grapes, pomegranates, and other crops.
Through the sheik’s contacts I met the mayor of the Garmian region, who sent his communication director, a slick operator named Haval Ibrahim. It was Ibrahim who would help me get to Jalawla.
Ibrahim’s first step was to take us to a Peshmerga base in the town of Khanaqin, which was the headquarters of General Hussein Mansour, the military commander of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s forces in the south. We needed his permission to get to the front lines. While we waited in a small room outside his office, we met a Sunni man from Jalawla who was waiting to see the general in hopes of finding his missing 15-year-old nephew.
“In the past I used to hate the Kurds, but this conflict has proved they don’t discriminate. In general they’re treating the Arabs very well,” the man told me. Part of his change of heart, he said, occurred during an incident in the last year, when he was accused of a crime and cleared of any wrongdoing. He said the Kurdish police chief invited him to his house for a meal, then personally drove him home.
When we were ushered into General Mansour’s office, he immediately asked what we wanted before anyone even had a chance to sit down. I told him we were trying to get to Jalawla, and he called in his deputy and told him to take us right away. The man didn’t waste time. He had a war to run, and he knew an American reporter could help him get his message in front of an audience.
I jumped into the back of an open truck with six Peshmerga soldiers. During the six or so miles to the town, the Peshmerga, all young men in their 20s, sang a traditional call-and-response song. The song’s gist was about their loyalty to Kurdistan, and their pledge to never leave her.
When I first arrived in Jalawla, I was surprised at how empty it was and how much damage had been done. Walls were pocked and scarred from small-arms and artillery fire, there were impact craters in the roads, and dogs roamed the empty streets.
A Peshmerga named Nasim told me that a few nights earlier he had killed an Islamic State combatant in a firefight. “When an Iraqi is killed, his friends come back and get his body,” Nasim said. “But when it’s a foreigner, they leave the body. No one cares for it. All the bodies that we’ve recovered belong to foreign nationalities. We find their passports or ID pictures.”
Most residents in Jalawla had locked and boarded up their homes and shops and headed toward Khanaqin, Khalar, or places farther north if they were Kurds. Arabs had to have friends or connections with Kurdish families to get into the Kurdish-controlled areas. Otherwise they were stopped at the outskirts of Khanaqin, the first city after Jalawla. On my way to Jalawla, I’d seen many of them living in the backs of large cattle trucks, in their own family cars, or huddled under makeshift tents made of poles and tarps. They looked hot, dusty, and miserable.
Before we reached the Peshmerga outpost, our driver accelerated to 60 miles an hour on the remaining exposed 100-yard stretch—a precaution, I was told, against the snipers who routinely fired on the Kurdish vehicles coming or going from the middle school.
The principal’s office of the Sharook Middle School, whose name means “sunrise” in Arabic, was now the office of the battalion commander, General Sherzad Mohamed Salah, a small, distinguished-looking man wearing the sand-colored, digital-camouflage uniform of the US Marines, but with lapels bearing black epaulets with the golden eagle and three stars signifying his brigadier-general rank. He sat behind a large wooden desk while a map of Africa decorated one wall and school athletic trophies filled the shelves on another. A group of his officers were gathered around him.
Peshmerga fighters on a barricade keep watch for Islamic State fighters.
Everyone I noticed seemed to be wearing uniforms with different styles and colors of camouflage, as if they had raided an army surplus store well stocked with fatigues from a wide spectrum of international conflicts. There were US Gulf War desert chocolate-chip-pattern outfits and a variety of woodland and blue urban-type camo. Sometimes tops and bottoms would be mixed with two of the three.
I thought it was another indication of a force that, despite its good reputation, was not well armed or funded and was informally organized. It seemed more of a militia than an army.
Like most Kurds, their loyalties were split between two political organizations, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. And both parties maintained control of their own Peshmerga units. So while on paper the Peshmerga were under the command of Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in practical terms they had no overall unified command structure.
General Sherzad confirmed that while the world was now pinning so much hope on the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, it had done little so far to arm and fortify them for the epic battle in which they now found themselves.
“We’ve had no help from the international community, and no support from or even contact or coordination with the Iraqi government to fight Daesh,” he said. As I looked around the room I could see that even the rifles the officers carried were worn and battered AK-47s, still effective but no match for the kind of weaponry the Islamic State had been able to capture or buy.
The US had spent billions on training and equipping the post-Saddam Iraqi Army. Though massive in size at nearly a quarter million active and well-outfitted troops, it was an army reportedly mired in corruption. Officer commissions could be bought and sold and competitors thwarted or enemies dispatched with just a call or two to the Ministry of the Interior. And it had disintegrated in the face of a much smaller force of invading Islamic State fighters.
Not long after arriving at the school, my attention quickly shifted to a red SUV that pulled up in front of the building. It was surrounded by Peshmerga eager to get a glimpse of what was in the trunk. The hatch was raised, and inside was a decomposing body wrapped in a large blanket. The putrid smell of rotting flesh quickly filled the humid air with a nauseating stench. The young Peshmerga seemed undeterred and pulled out their phones and began taking pictures of the corpse.
“Who is that?” I said to my interpreter, Mohamed, who began to ask around.
A soldier told us it was a body recovered from one of the destroyed buildings, likely just a resident who had lived there.
Then the Sunni man from Jalawla I had met earlier in General Monsour’s office stepped up to the vehicle and looked inside at the corpse. He showed no emotion and quickly turned away.
“Is it him?” I asked, before he walked away. His teenage nephew?
“No,” he said, shaking his head, seemingly relieved, but still without an answer to the mystery of his missing family member.
A Peshmerga fighter cries tears of joy after learning that a fellow soldier was actually not killed in battle as was earlier reported. A few hours later, he would get another report-this one confirming that his friend was indeed shot in the head and killed.
After the sniper shootout on the roof, General Sherzad told us we were moving to another Peshmerga outpost in Jalawla, the location of the former courthouse, to the south and closer to the Islamic State’s last stronghold in the former Iraqi Army recruiting depot of Tejneid. There we met more members of the Second Battalion, Third Brigade, and sat together on couches inside a small building surrounded by sandbags.
Through a sniper hole in one of the walls we could see the Islamic State’s position, about a thousand yards away. Its now infamous black-and-white flag flew on top of one of the buildings.
The general believed something big was going to happen that night, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. So we waited, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes while the Peshmerga played with their phones.
Three things seemed to fuel the Peshmerga in this war: drinking endless cups of chai tea with fistfuls of sugar; chain-smoking long, thin, cheap Korean cigarettes; and holding mobile phones more tightly than weapons, using them to record videos of firefights, to photograph bodies of dead Islamic State combatants, and to receive situation reports and orders from commanders.
At one point, one of the officers from the courthouse unit, Captain Oskar Ali Akbar, decided to entertain everyone with some singing. Like the young Peshmerga on my ride in the back of the truck to Jalawla, he led a traditional Kurdish call-out song in which the group blurted out personal names of people in the unit, or their hometowns, to give the song’s familiar tune a comic edge. The raucous laughter ended when Captain Akbar began singing a second song, an exotic and hypnotizing melody, known as a hairi. He pushed one hand against his face and tilted his head as if he were a club DJ holding one side of a headset against his ear while spinning tunes. He sang a cappella, but the nasal resonance of his voice made it seem as if he had instrumental accompaniment. The soldiers were transfixed, most of them recording the performance with their phones, videos that I later watched them play back over and over.
At one point, I left to walk around the outpost with the courthouse unit’s commander, Major Omar Abdul Rachman, a bald, wiry man with a gray mustache and a small pair of binoculars hanging from his neck. He took us to the judge’s chambers, where we saw that the building had been ransacked by the Islamic State before the Peshmerga pushed them out.
Furniture was overturned, papers were scattered everywhere, and, perhaps in a statement about their views on the secular rule of law, one of them had apparently taken a shit in the middle of what had been a small library. I was confident that there were similar expressions of contempt in the other territories they had conquered and still held.
When we left, everyone in the main compound seemed in good spirits, but on our return we found the room had become silent. A few of the men were wiping their eyes or covering their faces with their hands. They just found out that a popular 28-year-old Peshmerga fighter named Zuhair Jumma had been killed the night before, shot in the head by a sniper. He was one of the three Peshmerga dead and 11 injured in the most recent battle. The young men were devastated.
But within 45 minutes of the news, the mood reversed itself when a text came through that Jumma was actually still alive. Several of the men who had just been choking up now cried tears of relief.
At nightfall, the general disappeared with some of the other officers. But with nothing happening yet, many of the Peshmerga, exhausted from the emotional roller coaster and tired of drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, tried to sleep on the couches or chairs where they had been waiting most of the day and into the night.
Then one of the soldiers received another text message. He shook his head as he thumbed through it. Jumma really was dead. I looked around the room. No one had any tears left.
Peshmerga soldiers use the Sharook Middle School in Jalawla as a makeshift military base.
At 4 AM the sound of artillery and machine guns jolted us awake. I ran outside with my cameras to see the rockets streaking toward the Islamic State positions. Commandos, possibly from the Peshmerga special forces, were going from house to house with RPGs, clearing any place that might be a remaining sniper location. I watched as white smoke plumes rose from houses into the night sky.
The fighting continued all night, but it was impossible to make out what was happening until daybreak. Small arms fire erupted around the compound. I climbed cement stairs that led to a western rampart where a dozen Peshmerga had taken cover behind a long stone wall, sporadically firing into the distance where the black flag still flew. They pointed excitedly, saying, “Daesh, Daesh,” trying to show me whom they were shooting at, supposedly an Islamic State fighter hiding in a nearby ravine. Brush was burning in another part of the field where an artillery round had landed.
But I lost interest in their part of the fight when I heard a thunderous explosion only a hundred yards from where I was standing. I ran in the direction of the compound’s northern wall, climbing the berm that led to the top, and peered over. Two Russian-made T-52 tanks had been driven up from Khanaqin and were firing into Tejneid. Their earthshaking concussions reminded me of the only other time I had seen tanks in action, during the second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004. I watched US Army M1A1 tanks shoot their main guns down alleyways to blow up vehicles that may have been booby-trapped by insurgents. The US and its Iraqi allies had taken back Fallujah after one of the biggest and bloodiest fights of the war. Now, ten years later, the town was part of the Islamic State’s new caliphate.
While the Kurdish tanks fired, two Peshmerga cradled a wounded comrade in a chair-carry between them, moving him away from the front lines. But despite the momentum of all this firepower, something strange happened. Everyone stayed put. The Peshmerga just held their positions and didn’t advance any closer to assault the Islamic State’s stronghold in Tejneid.
The fighting lasted until around 8 AM, but still no advance. A half hour later General Sherzad gathered his men and told them they were heading back to the school, in the opposite direction of the Islamic State stronghold. We left the courthouse outpost by foot, threading through the streets of Jalawla back to Sharook Middle School.
On the way, we saw there had been a buildup of forces in the rear, more men and machines, replacements, poised for action, but also not moving forward.
When we reached the school I sat down with the general in the principal’s office. He looked weary and subdued. I asked him whether the operation had gone as he had hoped.
“We’ve had success here and we lost some people, but I don’t feel like I was able to do fully what I wanted,” he said. “We hoped from our commanders to bring the fight to all parts of the city, especially to Tejneid. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Despite all the new forces and equipment, the advance never happened, not that day or the next. The next day, I left the school with the general and his men as they returned back to their base in Khanaqin and were replaced by another unit in their normal week-on, week-off rotation.
A few weeks later, after I left Kurdistan and returned home, I learned that the Peshmerga never did get control of Tejneid. In fact, the Islamic State had mounted an August counteroffensive in Jalawla and taken control of most of the city.
The front lines of Iraq’s newest old war had shifted once again. Captain Abdul Khadir, I’m sure, was pissed, but the US and its allies knew they couldn’t afford to betray the Kurds again. The next time he’d face them, Khadir would have a new sniper rifle.
(Note: This article has been edited to remove an error in which the Americans, rather than the Kurds, were described as having little reason to stay.)