HASSAN SHAM, Iraq — The farthest edge of the Mosul highway still controlled by Iraqi and Kurdish forces ends in towering concrete barriers. Immediately beyond are blackened craters blasted by speeding suicide car bombs and the Islamic State positions.
It’s here — a 20-minute drive from Mosul on the road linking it to the Kurdish capital of Irbil — that the Kurdish troops, known as peshmerga, hold the line in full view of the militants’ fighting positions. But it remains uncertain if or when they will march into Iraq’s second-largest city and the extremists’ stronghold.
The Islamic State group’s blitzkrieg, which stunned the world and shocked the West into action with its summer conquests across northern Iraq, is no more, the Kurds say.
At the front, the peshmerga men now face harassing tactics eerily reminiscent of the waning insurgency Americans faced in the final years of their Iraqi occupation.
Although the hundreds of U.S. airstrikes since August have stopped the militants’ advance, the Iraqi army and its Kurdish allies have so far succeeded in retaking only slivers of occupied territory. The front line now meanders across much of northern Iraq, stretching for hundreds of miles from the Syrian border to an area west of the capital Baghdad.
“We as peshmerga are very strong. while day by day ISIS gets weaker,” said Latif Razbedi, using another name for the Islamic State. He spoke at the final peshmerga checkpoint between Irbil and Mosul. “In the day they hide from American planes, and even after dark they can’t show themselves.”
To the Kurdish fighters here, the once-vaunted power of the Islamic State has been reduced to taking potshots from afar and the occasional rocket-propelled grenade fired hastily in the night. They no longer fear a deluge of well-armed, fanatical Islamic militants sweeping through their lines across the front line.
The highway behind them, however, still bears the evidence of the shock of the groups’ stunning summer advance, as well as the toll they paid when they were repulsed by Western air power and a rallied peshmerga.
The Islamic States footprint starts near the outskirts of the Kurdish capital — the militants were once less than 30 miles from Irbil. There, refugees mill about skeletal concrete structures that were supposed to be completed apartment buildings by now.
Closer to Mosul the peshmerga checkpoints become more and more frequent. Dozens of cars left behind by fleeing Iraqis gather dust on a field beside the road.
In August, peshmerga forces told the 5,000 refugees at the Khazir refugee camp, located several miles behind the current front, that they could no longer protect them in the face of the Islamic State’s unrelenting advance.
The camp was closed and is today a sprawling square of rubbish abandoned in the haste of the evacuation.
But the peshmerga returned in force in October, pushing the Islamic State fighters back with the aid of coalition airstrikes that started that month.
“We stayed up that night and came down from the mountains and chased them away,” said Adham Omer, a senior fighter. “Boom, bang, everywhere explosions. We loved it.”
Past the debris of the former refugee camp, rusting hulks of vehicles that once bore the black flag of the Islamic State still dot the landscape. Western air power decimated Islamic State convoys and heavy weapons, peshmerga say.
“If it moves, we can blow it up,” said a peshmerga officer in charge of calling in the airstrikes. He declined to give his name for security reasons but said he had been trained by Americans years earlier and helped fight the Iraqi insurgency after the 2003 invasion. “We get intelligence or we actually see them moving and we use GPS to target them.”
Just before the final Kurdish positions are the bullet-ridden homes occupied progressively by civilians, the Islamic State and now the peshmerga. The oldest graffiti, which reads “Yes, yes, for Saddam,” was crossed out and replaced by “Islamic State,” which in turn was replaced by “Good luck peshmerga.”
In one house, a peshmerga fighter tied his scarf over his face. The smell of rot was overwhelming. In the main foyer, a pool of human blood had gelled solid.
The fighters said they removed a headless body but have no idea who the victim was.
The peshmerga at the front recognize that the force down the highway is still formidable, if diminished. And they still find themselves outgunned.
Outside their headquarters, a handful of Humvees — provided by France — flew the Kurdish flag and sported new .50 calibre machine guns. But most of the fighters carried aging Kalashnikov rifles and complained that they didn’t have the heavy weaponry to punch through the U.S. armored vehicles that Islamic State forces plundered from Mosul’s Iraqi Army bases.
Although Islamic State forces are unlikely to threaten Irbil again, it remains unclear exactly who will evict them from Mosul.
“Kurdistan will stay under threat if ISIS will stay in Mosul. In other words, the target for the time being must be Mosul,” Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, said in October.
Since then officials of Iraq’s regional Kurdish government have been more reluctant to publicly commit to a joint Iraqi-Kurdish attack on the city.
Lt. Col. Mohammad Harki, who commands the peshmerga battalion manning the front line at the edge of the highway, said he was certain ISIS wouldn’t make it past their lines. But he couldn’t tell when or if his men would march on Mosul.
“Politics,” he said, shrugging. “We don’t know.”