Beyond front lines in Iraq, a forgotten force faces Islamic State

Sheikh Mohammed jumped into his battered Toyota pickup and offered a visiting journalist his rusting Kalashnikov assault rifle for the three-mile ride to the front lines.

The offer rejected, he told his cousin Ali not to mention the journalist’s presence on the internal radio system because Islamic State fighters less than a mile away monitor the channel and they might mount an attack specifically to capture a journalist.

“Every last man of ours will die to protect you if they attack,” Sheikh Mohammed said with a rhetorical flourish. Then he laughed. “But there are a lot of them and they have tanks.”

Sheikh Mohammed and Ali – they asked that their family and tribal names not be used because they still have family in Islamic State-occupied Mosul – are nearly forgotten players in the nasty war that’s embroiled most of Iraq.

When Mosul fell in June, much was made of the complete collapse of the Iraqi army, which abandoned its posts across much of northern and central Iraq as disciplined Islamic State militants swept south. But that narrative ignores Sheikh Mohammed, Ali and perhaps 400 other Sunni Muslim soldiers who continue to fight.

Their position is a desolate, nearly abandoned farmhouse that lies more than a mile beyond what the other local anti-Islamic State force, the Kurdish peshmerga militia, describes as the front line. It consists of a deep ditch dug to stop any Islamic State tanks, reinforced by an 8-foot-tall earthen berm. In front of them the flat agricultural expanse of northern Iraq stretches into the distance. To the rear, it’s 30 minutes to the town of Mahmour.

In interviews, the peshmerga don’t even mention the Sunni fighters’ existence. Which is fitting, since the Kurds distrust the men here; they’re Sunni Arabs, after all, like the Islamic State.

The men also appear to have been forgotten by the Shiite-Muslim-led government in Baghdad, which views them as only a step above the extremists they’re fighting. The group hasn’t received any weapons or ammunition or any other support as it mans its forward position, waiting for the Islamic State to attack. Still, the men fight on.

“I could be sitting in an apartment in Irbil,” said the men’s commander, Gen. Fatah, who claims more than 35 years as an officer in the various iterations of the modern Iraqi army. “I could be eating warm food and drinking tea with my family. Any of these men you see could be sitting safely in tents being fed by the international community and safe from this weather and the Islamic State. Why? Why are we here?”

He provided his own answer.

“We want to return to our homes and our dignity,” he said. “We are the former army, we are police, we are former Sahwa Council fighters,” referring to the pro-government Sunni militia funded by the Americans to defeat much of the al Qaida-led Sunni insurgency from 2006 to 2008.

Gen. Fatah, Sheikh Mohammed and the rest of these fighters – some sport professional-looking military equipment while others wear tracksuits and sandals despite near-freezing weather – have fallen into the cracks of the ad hoc alliance that defends a centrally governed Iraq.

The central government – whose responsibility it is to arm these men – refuses to even discuss the matter with the men’s leaders, they say. The peshmerga militia of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government has come to their aid when the Islamic State has attacked with heavy armor, but it doesn’t leave behind any equipment.

And with only about 100 weapons split among 400 or so members, who alternate time on the front lines in shifts, Gen. Fatah said he didn’t have enough to hold his position, let alone advance.

“Give all of my men rifles and ammunition. Give us 20 (heavy machine guns), some trucks and some rocket-propelled grenades and we could push to the end of Mosul in 72 hours,” he boasted, arguing that his farm boys are all from the surrounding villages and have combat experience.

“We only want to retake our land,” he said.

The outpost’s armaments are a motley collection: personal weapons – most households in Iraq have access to Kalashnikovs – a couple of rusting heavy machine guns and two aging rocket-propelled grenade launchers that Ali joked have yet to be fired. “I worry they’re so old they’ll explode and kill us,” he said.

The position comes under sniper attack nightly, the men said, as small groups of Islamic State fighters use the cover of nightfall to mask their movements from coalition aircraft circling overhead.

“They test us almost every night,” said one of the men. “Sometimes a sniper, sometimes a mortar, but they always want to make sure we’re still here.”

Despite their lightly armed position – the men say their ammo comes from tribal leaders, families and personal purchases – they serve a crucial purpose that one observer likened to “lambs being left for the wolves.” Exposed on the end of the berm, they’re less of a military force than an early warning signal that the berm is being overrun.

Last month, Islamic State fighters backed by a Soviet-era tank – likely looted from Iraqi army stockpiles – attacked the position in an effort to get around the berm. That brought the peshmerga’s help.

“We were able to disable the tank and fight off the attack,” said Gen. Fatah. “But without the heavy rockets and RPGs of the peshmerga, they’d have taken this position and could just drive on to Mahmour.”

In recent days, there’s been much talk of an offensive in the spring to retake Mosul. The Kurdish peshmerga mounted a recent offensive to cut the main road between Mosul and Tal Afar, two of the Islamic State’s largest population centers in northern Iraq. The Iraqi central government claims it will be in position to begin retaking Mosul within weeks, an assertion that seems unlikely given the army’s inability to hold on to territory in Anbar province to the west and neighboring Salahuddin province to the south.

Few think it’s likely the peshmerga will assault Mosul themselves. Their leaders have vowed to use their weapons to protect their own enclave. Mosul, like Gen. Fatah’s desolate outpost, lies well outside the Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders. Fighting with Arab soldiers doesn’t seem to be high on the priority list.

“Arab soldiers? I don’t know,” Karam Kirkuki, a Kurdish commander near Kirkuk, said in response to a question about whether he’d fight with them. “They flee and leave their equipment after one shot by the Islamic State.”

Said another Kurdish military leader in Irbil, speaking only anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject: “We have had more than 800 martyrs since June among the peshmerga. We can look at their families and say, ‘Your son died to protect Kurdistan.’ Retaking Mosul will cost thousands of lives, for a Sunni city that we don’t want and it doesn’t seem like Baghdad wants. So what do we tell the families then?”

“We can’t do that,” he said. “We will help and we will fight, but it will be as part of something. The Iraqis have to want to fight as well.”