Kirkuk, Iraq - Every few minutes a couple of the half-dozen howitzers would jolt back, triggering deafening cracks and sending shells hurtling towards jihadist positions in the village of Malla Abdullah fifteen kilometers from Kirkuk.
One 122mm salvo startled a stray donkey and he charged off braying irritably down a deserted road now hardly used because of the risk of jihadist rocket attacks or the possibility of roadside bombs.
“I wouldn’t go any further,” cautioned a Kurdish commander as he observed where one of the peshmerga shells fell.
The Kurdish peshmerga resting in the shade from the scorching sun seemed not to notice the loud lobbing of shells towards the Da’esh, the name they use for the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, whose weeklong offensive is threatening to dismember Iraq and hurl the war-weary country back to wrenching, bloody sectarian civil war.
“Those who confront death” is the literal translation of the word peshmerga and the young men lounging like lizards in the 100-plus Fahrenheit heat were mentally preparing in their own individual ways for the battle they know is to come with jihadists by cooking, joshing each other or just catching naps.
The fighting at Malla Abdullah between the Kurds and jihadists has so far not been at close quarters. Both sides are reserving themselves for when peshmerga commanders decide to try to push the Da’esh further back and to straighten a defensive line around the city of Kirkuk that they insist will hold.
Since ISIS stormed the city of Mosul bordering Iraqi Kurdistan last week, the Kurds have been on a war footing. They moved quickly to establish control of the city of Kirkuk, which is outside semi-autonomous Kurdistan but has a large Kurdish population.
Convoys of trucks carrying peshmerga, who flash thumbs-up signs when locals wave, have been scurrying along the highways of Iraqi Kurdistan strengthening positions in readiness to block jihadists and their Sunni militant allies from gaining any territory. But stopping jihadist infiltration will be no easy feat and the Kurds are relying on sympathizers among the Sunni tribes around Mosul and to the south of Kirkuk to alert them to ISIS movements.
The Kurds have no faith in the Iraqi military rallying and the confident note struck on Wednesday by beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki only prompted peshmerga derision.
In a televised address announcing that a fight-back had begun, he promised government forces would retake Mosul. But the Kurds don’t see al-Maliki as the man who can save Iraq: they blame his exclusionary Shiite politics for the disaster that has befallen the country. Like the Americans they want al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government to be replaced by one able to reach out to Sunni Muslims and start a process of reconciliation to undercut the jihadist exploitation of Sunni resentment.
“Six army divisions just melted away before the jihadists,” says Ahmed Askari, the head of the security committee of the Kirkuk council and a veteran peshmerga commander. “Think of it, they just ran away,” he says scornfully.
“We won’t allow the jihadists to cross the line,” adds Askari as he jabs with a ruler at a map of the governorate of Kirkuk explaining the rough positions of the competing forces and where bulges in the line threaten the Kurds’ defensive positions. Much of the defensive line follows an irrigation canal or parts of the Lower Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris.
The village of Basheer, on the other side of Kirkuk from Malla Abdullah, represents another vulnerability and fighting there has already involved street-by-street combat leaving 10 peshmarga dead and several wounded in the past 24 hours. Two of the dead were killed not by ISIS fighters, though: they were killed in a bombing run by Iraqi warplanes of which the peshmerga had no forewarning, much to their anger.
Basheer, a Shiite-majority town, which jihadists first entered on Tuesday night, has been a greater concern for the Kurds than Malla Abdullah. They had feared ISIS fighters and their Sunni allies would unleash a massacre of the predominantly Shiite townsfolk. It is also closer to the city of Kirkuk – just two miles to the south.
But the airstrike forced a Kurdish withdrawal Wednesday from Basheer, which the peshmerga insists is only temporary. In the meantime most of the town’s 16,000 population have fled, joining the 300,000 refugees from Mosul already in Iraqi Kurdistan.
While Shiite refugees from Basheer are fearful of ISIS, many of the Sunni refugees in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, say it isn’t the al Qaeda breakaway they fear so much as the start of Syrian air force bombing raids and the possibility of US airstrikes. “I am not afraid of Da’esh,” says Shatha. “I am worried about what Maliki will do and the shelling.”
The refugees aren't alone in worrying about the consequences of aerial bombing. Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, warned today against air strikes being mounted, arguing that there would inevitably be high civilian casualties."There are ISIS elements which are mixed in with the people. Such an operation could result in a serious number of deaths among civilians," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
A mother-of-three and grandmother of five she has already seen one of her sons killed by an artillery bombardment and she is not prepared to risk any more members of her family by leaving the tent they now occupy in a refugee camp on a sunbaked plain an hour from Erbil. Refugees outside camps are finding the expense of Erbil too much and hundreds have returned to ISIS-controlled territory in recent days.
The peshmerga are no newcomers to fighting Sunni militants. Prior to the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kurdish fighters helped American Special Forces evict the fanatical Ansar al-Islam group from a stronghold near the Iranian border. And in 2004, the peshmerga fought alongside US troops when Iraqi police and National Guard units in Mosul failed to contain a Sunni insurgency.
Are they likely to try a repeat of 2004 and assist Iraqi security forces to take back Mosul? “We are fighting a defensive war; not an offensive one,” says a peshmerga commander, who declined to be named for this article. And ordinary fighters don’t seem overwhelmed at the idea of going on the offensive outside Iraqi Kurdistan.
They see the ISIS uprising as part of a general Sunni revolt. Sunni tribes to the south of Kirkuk rebuffed a peshmerga offer of anti-ISIS assistance and were warned to confine themselves to the northern half of Kirkuk province, says Askari.
But he holds out the possibility of a Kurdish offensive outside their territory. “If anyone comes and helps us to confront al Qaeda and ISIS we are ready, and that includes Iran, America, Israel, anyone.”
Until then the Kurds are focused on Kurdistan, or territory close to their lines and necessary for self-defense. And they are taking no chances. Today their leader, Masoud Barzani, issued a general call-up for retired Kurdish fighters to rejoin the peshmerga.