MAKTAB KHALED, Iraq. — Kurdish soldier Said Tahseen stands atop a sandbagged mound at this checkpoint, south of the oil city of Kirkuk.
He points to a bridge 300 yards away: “That is where ISIS is, below the bridge.”
Three black flags of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ripple there in the wind.
Local villagers tried to arrange a truce last month between the Kurdish peshmerga — the name means “those who face death” — and ISIS, whose brutality has shocked people around the world.
“They came here and were all dressed in black, even over their faces,” Tahseen recalls of the meeting with ISIS. “All you could see were their eyes.”
Kurdish peshmerga occupied Kirkuk in June, when terrified Iraqi soldiers fled from ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq. The Sunni terrorists had seized a wide swath of territory including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tikrit, hometown of dead dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi Kurds, an autonomous ethnic group, fought ISIS to a standstill along a 600-mile front.
Their lines have edged near enough to make ISIS’s black flags readily visible.
The region remains unstable, however. Three nearly simultaneous car bombs exploded in Kirkuk on Saturday, killing 21 people and wounding more than 100, according to reports; a bomb attached to a car in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, also exploded, wounding four.
A car bomb outside the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad killed six civilians and five security personnel; at least 24 people were wounded in that attack.
ISIS is suspected in the Kirkuk and Irbil bombings.
“ISIS are like the dogs — when you train them to find explosives, they find explosives. ISIS is trained for bloodshed, that is what they do,” says Lateef Saber, a Kurdish colonel.
‘ISIS is two steps ahead’
To the surprise and dismay of many here and in the West, the peshmerga — known for their battlefield ferocity and fortitude — withdrew earlier this month from the city of Sinjar and surrounding villages as ISIS advanced toward the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
Their retreat sent nearly a half-million minority Iraqis — Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and Turkmen — fleeing into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Many traumatized refugees still speak bitterly of being abandoned by the peshmerga.
Kurdish forces say they were outgunned and lacked even enough ammunition to fight the terror group, which seized modern U.S. military equipment abandoned by six Iraqi army brigades.
“What happened in the region, we weren’t fully prepared for it,” explains Brig. Gen. Helgurd Hikmat, a peshmerga spokesman. “We couldn’t imagine that Mosul and the other governorates would collapse in 24 hours.
“ISIS is two steps ahead of us now.”
U.S. airstrikes have slowed ISIS and helped the peshmerga to recapture the strategic Mosul Dam. Yet everyone here wonders how long the U.S. support will last.
“Until when we will have this air cover?” asks Farhad Ameen Atrushi, governor of Dohuk province. “If ISIS comes back, they will have the same sophisticated weapons. We can resist, but we need support.”
He estimates that 600,000 refugees streamed into Dohuk, which has a population of 1 million.
“I can assure you that the peshmerga can kick ISIS out of our land,” Hikmat says. “But until the peshmerga is armed with new weapons, I think we still need air cover.”
A tough transition
The United States and France have shipped weapons to the Kurds; their military advisors are training peshmerga in Irbil.
But experts say the Kurds must resolve structural weaknesses to become a unified army able to defeat ISIS.
“While the peshmerga are far more disciplined and professional fighters than their Iraqi counterparts, it’s been a while since they were really put to the test,” says Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council in Washington and an expert on Iraq and Jordan.
The Kurds are “fierce fighters (who) have dealt with a history of battling one war after another, including a civil war among themselves,” he says.
But they “have to transition from a guerrilla force to an army” — and that “isn’t easy. You have to go through a process of relearning and internalizing new military culture and doctrine.”
Right now, some of them are baffled by their new, sophisticated U.S. and French weapons.
“Yesterday one of the generals called me and said, ‘We don’t know how to use them,’ ” concedes Dohuk’s governor.
“ISIS has tanks, Humvees and, of course, a lot of money and men who are ready to die.”
It also fought for more than a year in Syria’s brutal civil war, honing its battlefield skills.
“Of course we know this, that is why we asked for help,” says Hikmat. “Half of the peshmerga isn’t trained well. They aren’t even trained in weapons that are common in any army in the region.”
Some peshmerga appear to be in their 50s or older — veterans of the long fight against Saddam Hussein’s army, now recalled to bolster the ranks and to lead younger, inexperienced men.
In February, Iraq’s central government cut the 17 percent of its budget earmarked for Iraqi Kurdistan; Kurdish officials say they have not received a cent from Baghdad and cannot pay peshmerga salaries.
All of this has degraded “the status of the Kurdish security establishment,” says the Atlantic Council’s Mardini. “The ‘software’ may be professional and disciplined, but the hardware is inadequate. There’s no way the Kurds were going to be able to sustain a fight during an enduring conflict.”