On Iraq’s Remote Edge, Kurdish Troops Stare Down Islamic State

All is not quiet on Iraq’s western front


by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS

Our SUV passes ripe wheat fields swaying in the gentle breeze. The occasional signs poke out where the fields meet the highway warning travelers that Islamic State has planted improvised explosives along the road.

No one will harvest these fields for a long time.

We’re headed toward the front line in the city of Sinjar to meet Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Islamic State stormed the northwestern Iraqi city in August and massacred the Yezidi residents. The militants looted the city of valuables and kidnapped thousands of women and girls — forcing them into slavery.

The residents who could escape fled to Mount Sinjar, home to the Yezidi people’s holiest shrines. The Yezidis held out on the mountain for months.

Kurdish fighters — backed by coalition air strikes — retook the mountain in December. But six months later, it’s painfully clear that Islamic State continues to menace the whole region.

To get to Sinjar city, we must first have to pass Mount Sinjar. The road there is long and straight, with much of its length running parallel to the Syrian border. It’s been several months since my last visit to the mountain.

Last time, getting there involved flying in an Iraqi air force helicopter. This time, the journey will be a bit more conventional.

The road passes through the outskirts of the devastated border city of Rabia and contains countless Peshmerga checkpoints. Many buildings visible from the road have collapsed — or bear the signs of damage from previous battles.

Not long ago, this entire area was in the hands of the Islamic State.
At top —Sinjar city reflected in a mirror used by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to observe enemy positions. Above —looking south to Mount Sinjar on the road from Sinuni. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

Our party during the trip is primarily made up of personnel from the CNS Foundation, a local aid organization. They will hand out first aid kits, teach front-line troops how to use them, deliver medical supplies to the mountain and find out what can be done to help Yezidi refugees who still live there.

Mount Sinjar is a bit of a misnomer — it’s in fact a 47-mile-long ridge line near the Syrian border. Islamic State surrounded it last year as part of its August 2014 offensive. Thousands of Yezidis fled from the surrounding towns and villages up the mountain, where they endured a long siege.

A Yezidi settlement on Mount Sinjar. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The Syrian-Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units — or YPG — held a corridor to the mountain. But after Islamic State cut the route, the only way to reach it was by helicopter.

The YPG and the Peshmerga eventually retook much of the Yezidi homelands to the north and relieved the mountain. But the fighting never ceased.

Turning south, we pass through the town of Sinuni, which Islamic State once declared as its northern capital. Some residents have returned, but only a few of the town’s shops are open. Islamic State graffiti marks buildings here and there, but the residents and Peshmerga fighters have crossed it out in paint.

Mount Sinjar fills the horizon ahead.

Tented Yezidi settlements on a floodplain on Mount Sinjar. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

We pass into a valley, its sides rising abruptly to form a rocky gateway to the mountain itself. The road ascends slowly as we pass Yezidi settlements, ancient homes and farming terraces along both sides of the valley road.

The valley widens into a vast floodplain. Within the breathtaking view are tents — makeshift housing for displaced Yezidis. Some of the tents are clustered together, others sit by themselves, perhaps just for privacy.

Children play between the tents and adults carry out their chores. It’s a scene of normalcy in an otherwise very unusual situation.

It’s hard to imagine that Islamic State — which tried to exterminate these people — controls territory just a few miles away. Along the road, a grim juxtaposition takes place with tents in the foreground and the Nineveh floodplains with its Islamic State-held settlements visible over the side of the mountain.

One of the CNSF workers tells us that those inhabiting the villages south of the mountain are key supporters of Islamic State. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Al Qaeda fighters used this area as a route to and from Syria.

In 2007, the U.S. military raided Sinjar city and captured documents — known as the “Sinjar Records” — which detailed how Al Qaeda’s logistics operated. At the time, the road was a veritable international highway for foreign fighters headed into Iraq.

Now Islamic State uses the region to move between its two prize cities — Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

A destroyed car by the side of the road that winds from the top of the mountain down to Sinjar city. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

We pass the spot where I flew off the mountain during my last trip. Back then, the road massed with throngs of refugees heading toward higher ground or waiting for rescue helicopters. Now it’s almost completely deserted.

The PKK and Peshmerga headquarters are still in the same place, but aside from a medical tent and some people waiting to be seen by the staff, the area is extremely quiet.

The road into the city of Sinjar snakes its way south, into the valley and floodplain below. We pass by wrecked cars, which Yezidi owners left behind after suffering mechanical problems or after running out of fuel. A few wrecks were exploded Islamic State suicide car bombs.

Clothes left by Yezidi refugees on the road to Sinjar city. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

What’s more tragic are the discarded clothes. The Yezidis fled with whatever they could carry — and some dumped their belongings as they ran up the mountain. It’s illustrative of a panicked and terrifying retreat.

Far below, we can see Sinjar city. Vehicles carrying Peshmerga fighters pass us heading the other direction — making their way back from duty and supply runs.

Looking at a map, it’s hard to discern why this area is so strategically important. But you get a different view on the ground.

The road finishes in a valley with steep sides, and the city itself spreads across the mouth of the valley, forming a plug. Anyone who wants to get to the mountain must go through the city.

The road from Mount Sinjar to the city. All visible land beyond the far ridge-line is controlled by Islamic State. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The mountain’s physical location, and the Kurdish forces located there, protect the Yezidis. Without control of Sinjar city, you can’t get to the mountain. For this part of Iraq, the Sinjar region is the front line of defense against Islamic State.

Our first stop is right on the edge of the city. What was once a residential home is now the headquarters for Yezidi fighters working with Peshmerga troops affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

CNS tutors get to work delivering a lesson on battlefield casualty treatment — how to dress wounds, apply tourniquets and other crucial lifesaving techniques. The Yezidis, and some visiting Kurdish troops, all listen to the talk. Basic trauma care is a hot topic with the Peshmerga, so much so that the Western coalition is also teaching first aid during a massive training run near Erbil and Dohuk.

The training works. Several days after our visit to Sinjar, CNS-trained fighters used their medical skills and kits to save three of their wounded comrades’ lives.

Two Yezidi fighters apply a tourniquet to a comrade during a training run by a local organization. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Once the lesson is over, the CNS workers hand out first aid kits. They still have more kits to deliver and another lecture to give at a Peshmerga base further down the road.

Two pickup trucks laden with fighters zoom down the road near the headquarters. The occupants cheer and whoop as they head out of the city and away from the front line.

Our building is around a mile and a half from the front-line positions, well within mortar range. Islamic State regularly harasses forces in the area with mortar fire — and sometimes the rounds land close. Two weeks ago, one mortar round exploded 20 yards away from the building.

Suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to go for a leisure walk.

A Yezidi sniper, armed with a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, stands for a portrait in his unit’s headquarters. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Yezidi unit commander Qasim Darbo and a Peshmerga intelligence colonel named Mohammed beckon our party to sit down for an interview. We’re more than happy to oblige. I want to know what’s happening here — and I want to get closer.

“There is no progress in any advance here at the moment,” Mohammad explains. “This is because of Tal Afar and Mosul. If we pushed here, there would be danger because these two cities still belong to ISIS.”

The Kurds heavily rely on coalition support — particularly warplanes — to hold the area. “The air strikes help, but they are too few in this area,” Darbo tells us. “Sometimes there are none for 10 to 15 days. Sometimes they fly over without bombing.”

Mohammed explains that Islamic State exploits lulls in air support by increasing its tempo of attacks. He says the terror group launched a large assault just two days ago.

“ISIS is an international organization. They use any weak point — they never stop,” Darbo says. “The ones here from foreign countries are in charge, they attack if there are no air strikes. They re-group and attack.”

We ask how they know that foreign fighters play a such a key role in Islamic State’s operations. “We have killed foreign fighters and Chechens,” Mohammed replies. “And we hear them on the radio.”

Islamic State also relies on reinforcements from Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish commanders explain that Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa is close by, so it’s easy for them to get supplies from both directions.

“With coalition help we have killed around 1,000,” Mohammed adds. “Half of this is through air strikes.”

Yezidi militia fighters, Peshmerga troops and Kurdish PKK and YPG guerrillas are all fighting Islamic State in Sinjar. The officers say that each group cooperates in operations. “There are now 6,200 Yezidi fighters working with the government, Mohammed adds. “We are asking for 4,000 more.”

We hear a mortar impact in the distance while we speak.

The Kurdish flag flies over a Yezidi headquarters on the edge of Sinjar city. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Darbo says that Islamic State is incredibly well equipped, using everything from heavy artillery to tanks — most of it captured. But the group’s tactics have shifted.

“Now [they] mostly mortars and small arms — also rockets,” Darbo says. “Usually the suicide bombers hit first. Then rockets and RPGs with light weapons,” Mohammed adds. “They are trying to take [the city] back.”

But the officer claims that Islamic State’s local support is falling. Ruthless tactics, holier-than-thou foreign leaders and battlefield setbacks have weakened Islamic State in the Sinjar region.

“When ISIS came, people believed in them and joined — taking part with everything they had,” Mohammed says. “After they knew the truth, many left.”

But weakened doesn’t mean defeated. The militants stubbornly hold onto ground — and the Kurds don’t feel prepared enough to venture further into Islamic State territory. The Kurdish officers say they have no plans to launch any offensives into Sinjar city any time soon.

“We are a defending force — we need special forces to take the city,” Mohammed says.

“This is already a very long front line. If we went forward, we would need more forces to control a larger amount of ground.”

After bidding goodbye to our hosts, we leave the house and drive to another building that functions as the local Peshmerga headquarters. Straight away, we meet Brig. Gen. Ez Aldeen, the sector commander. I ask if we can visit the front line.

After a discussion, Ez agrees to take us to a position. He dons his body armor and we prepare to move out.

We get inside an armored Toyota Land Cruiser, and the heavy doors thunk reassuringly shut. Islamic State snipers can see the some of the route from their positions inside the city.

Starry bullet-impact patterns mark the windshield and driver’s side window. If the window hadn’t been armored, the bullets would have passed through and hit the driver.

The bullet scarred windows of an armored Toyota Land Cruiser. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Two hundred meters down the road, we reach an area that’s particularly open to snipers — so we stop, get out and hop into a German-donated ATF Dingo Mark 1 armored vehicle.

This vehicle has an MG3 machine gun mounted on the roof. It’s dark inside, and someone stripped out the internal control station that’s for firing the weapon remotely. But it’s still comforting, at least compared to the bullet-scarred Land Cruiser. Berlin has donated 10 mine-resistant Dingos to the Peshmerga and more are on the way.

The driver revs his engine and we move quickly. The two-minute trip is just enough to get us past the most dangerous area. The Dingo then drops us off at a fighting position on top of a mound that appears to have once been a house.

Ahead of us, Peshmerga fighters take turns running past a small gap. We follow. Three Kurdish troops watch from the position’s V-shaped entrance formed of rocks and masonry.

Peshmerga watch from the entrance to their fortified position. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Inside, the position is cramped. A large piece of canvas provides cover from the harsh sun. Even though it’s not quite summer, the heat would be unbearable without some sort of protection.

I couldn’t stop comparing this to another front-line position I visited in Narawan a few months ago. We’re much better entrenched here, but the distance between the Peshmerga and Islamic State fighters is much closer and the front line far more active.

There’s sandbag walls with little gaps in them — small peep holes and firing slits facing enemy-held buildings. Incoming fire is common, so Kurdish troops here are careful not to reveal themselves.

Raising one’s head too far, even by accident, could be fatal.

Ez asks me to come over. He and I huddle together and look through one of the slits. Speaking in a combination of German and Kurdish, he points out a red house about 70 yards away.

It’s an Islamic State fighting position.

A bullet riddled house seen through a Peshmerga observation slit. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The house has seen better days.

It’s full of holes, and the red and yellow masonry is chewed away in some places. It’s physical testimony to how often the Peshmerga — and the PKK — have targeted the building. Deeper into the city, many of the houses look relatively unscathed.

This part of the front sees a lot of incoming and outgoing fire, so the Peshmerga use makeshift tools to peep into the city — such as a car’s side-door mirror. It’s a low tech but safe way to monitor the town.

A Peshmerga fighter looks through the sights of his G36 assault rifle. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

We hear an incoming mortar round somewhere in the distance. There’s a crash as it detonates, but we can’t see where.

Elsewhere, a fighter watches through a hole in a sandbag wall. Armed with a G36 assault rifle — another item courtesy of the German government — he alternates between scanning the ground in front of another Peshmerga position and surveying the city with a broken mirror.

Looking through the mirror, we can see a trademark black Islamic State flag flying from a communications tower.

A tower topped with the Islamic State black flag seen in the reflection of a mirror used to observe Sinjar city. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Keeping low, Ez guides us under a tarpaulin to a sandbagged position. There are three fighters inside this emplacement, including a sniper armed with a Russian-made SVD Dragunov rifle.

Behind the sandbags and above the fighters’ heads, Ez shows us where heavy machine gun fire chewed away old masonry. The impacts of single bullets fired by snipers are easily visible as dark pockmarks on the cream colored surface.

At left — the impact mark of a round fired by an Islamic State sniper. At left — a Peshmerga sniper poses with his weapon at a defensive position in Sinjar city. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

We have a better view of the city from here, but the urban sprawl is still unremarkable. Apart from the nearby damaged buildings, occasional collapsed houses and a few black flags, the city looks … well, normal.

If it wasn’t for the empty streets, mortar fire and prior knowledge that there’s a war going on, it would be hard to imagine the town was anything other than deserted. But Ez indicates that our time is up. Ducking back under the sheet, we move back to the cramped area where we came in.

A Peshmerga fighter observes the impact point of a mortar round which landed close behind his unit’s positions. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

There’s the whoosh of another incoming mortar round, and most of us duck in self preservation. This one’s closer than the last, and impacts 100 yards away on a hillside behind another Peshmerga position.

We say our goodbyes and drive off. The same Peshmerga fighters we saw at the entrance wave as we trundle back to the headquarters.

Looking back, we see smoke from yet another mortar strike — this one in an area behind the front line. Three days later, Islamic State attacked again, but failed, leaving behind the dead body of one of its fighters.

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