WANA, Iraq — The soldier pressed a handkerchief to his face to fight the smell of corpses at his feet. Then he crossed the street, sat on a curb, put his head between his knees, and spit. He lit a cigarette. “I’d rather smell the smoke,” he said, “because the stench is rotten, it’s gross.”
The soldier gazed warily at three young ISIS fighters who lay dead at the foot of a crumbled wall. One was charred from a rocket-propelled grenade. Another had a hole in his head. The jihadis wore thick socks but no shoes, to muffle their steps along the pockmarked streets during the battle that raged there the day before.
The soldier was part of an ethnic Kurdish force called the peshmerga that has spent more than six months battling ISIS in northern Iraq. He and his colleagues won this town south of the Mosul Dam, called Wana, the previous afternoon. They spoke as if they’d been dispatching demons. “They are like animals,” a 30-year-old lieutenant said, “and they don’t have brains to think.”
It was ISIS’s push into Iraq’s Kurdish region that prompted the U.S. to begin airstrikes against the group in August, paving the way for the Obama administration to launch a new war. Two months after taking over the Iraqi city of Mosul, the extremists were threatening genocide against the Yazidi religious minority around Mt. Sinjar and advancing toward the regional capital of Erbil.
The peshmerga have since become the main partner on the ground for the U.S. and its coalition of allies, shouldering the grunt work of combat. More than half of the airstrikes the U.S. has carried out in Iraq, according to the U.S. military command overseeing operations against ISIS, have hit along Kurdish lines. The extent of U.S. cooperation with the Kurds suggests the true percentage is far higher, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst tracking the conflict at the Institute for the Study of War.
Six months into the offensive, soldiers along the peshmerga’s 650-mile front with ISIS show the strain of a grueling war. They fight to protect their land — but also feel they’re doing the dirty work for Western countries that keep far from the smell of death. A major in Sinjar called the peshmerga “the only ones on the front fighting” as soldiers fired over stacks of sandbags; a colonel barricaded across from ISIS in Kirkuk said, “It’s not supposed to be this way.” At a western outpost overlooking ISIS-held Syria, an officer said the Kurds hold the line “for every single country fighting ISIS,” while in Wana, the weary soldiers prepared to clear the three corpses as feral cats began to pick at their flesh.
“All the houses here are full of their bodies,” a peshmerga general in his sixties said, standing in a street flanked by an armed convoy. He wore a traditional uniform, a brown tunic over baggy brown pants, and had a rifle on his shoulder. Known as Zaim Ali, or “leader Ali,” Omar Othman Ibrahim is one of the peshmerga’s most respected serving commanders, making his name in the long struggle with the Saddam Hussein regime. That fight burnished the peshmerga’s reputation for ferocity — its name means “those who face death” — as its fighters relied on the local mountains to resist attacks by Hussein’s forces in a campaign against the Kurds that included mass executions and gas attacks.
Since August, the Kurds, aided by U.S. airstrikes, have retaken most of their territory from ISIS. Ibrahim, who oversees the front that stretches from the Mosul Dam to the Sinjar Mountains and the Syrian border, said Wana was one of several towns and villages he’d won of late. But the peshmerga have incurred heavy casualties. Ibrahim said that there were more than 5,000 wounded and 1,000 killed. Estimates of the peshmerga’s size range from 80,000 to more than twice that, though the number of battle-ready fighters is likely lower.
At his base later in the day, Ibrahim said the peshmerga had been shaken by ISIS’s extreme brand of war: waves of suicide bombers, vehicle-borne explosives, roadside bombs. “It would affect the will of any army in the world,” he said. “There’s car bombs, suicide bombs; you shoot someone and he blows up. It’s a lot different than in the past. The way of fighting has changed.”
Like other commanders, Ibrahim said he appreciated the U.S. strikes. Without them, the Kurds would likely be overrun. Yet he was wary of the Obama administration’s long-term view of a war that requires the Kurds to take the casualties. “You cannot just say that you are at war with ISIS,” he said. “If you want to be in a war, you have to be on the ground, face-to-face.”
Even Kurds who keep away from the war are coming to grips with life on ISIS’s edge. From Erbil, the safest route to the valley city of Dohuk, 40 miles from the Mosul Dam, winds past a mountain called Maqlub. On the other side of the mountain sits Mosul, some 20 miles southwest in a straight shot from the road. On a recent morning, Mohamed Azad, a 21-year-old student, sped his Kia Cerato past Maqlub, blaring “Sledgehammer” by Miley Cyrus on the radio.
Azad speaks fluent English and is getting a business degree to take advantage of a post-Hussein commercial boom that has seen international companies flock to Erbil, drilling oil and building developments and hotels. Granted semiautonomous status in Iraq’s 2003 constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government had become an outlier of stability in a country plagued by the aftershocks of the U.S. war, largely free from the sectarian violence that grips its Arab neighbors. It has been jarring for this relatively secular and pro-Western enclave to find itself bordering an extremist proto-state that wants to drag the region back to medieval times. Asked if he felt the Kurds’ fortunes would hold, Azad paused for a moment: “I think so.”
The Kurds rely on U.S. strikes to hold back the ISIS tide, but their forces are also key to a U.S. strategy that promises to defeat ISIS without deploying combat troops. America needs allies to do the fighting on the ground. Yet the rebels it supports in Syria are weak and mired in civil war, while the Iraqi military is still reeling from a summer collapse in Mosul that saw its U.S.-trained and -equipped soldiers flee in the face of ISIS’s advance, leaving their weapons behind. Like the Kurds, its forces are fighting ISIS regularly — but often alongside Shiite militia that seem to grow more powerful by the day. “It’s not just that the Kurds right now are more competent, cohesive, and disciplined on the front lines,” said David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s that when you’re talking about anyone who is not peshmerga, they’re bundled up in the field with Shiite militia, with Iranian advisors, and with other people that we don’t like or trust.”
U.S. trainers and advisors are working to get Iraqi forces up to task — a process some observers expect to take many months. Until then the Kurds will have to stay “in a holding pattern,” Pollock said. “But it’s serious work. They’re losing a lot of people.”
Past Dohuk, on the road toward Sinjar, civilian traffic dwindles. SUVs carrying peshmerga patrol the streets, and soldiers wearing ski masks to fight the cold man heavy machine guns mounted in the beds of pickup trucks. Checkpoints line the road; most belong to the peshmerga. Some are run by the region’s other Kurdish forces, Turkey’s PKK and Syria’s YPG, which have also played an important role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Evidence of the chaos surrounding ISIS’s summer onslaught lies in a landscape of endless destruction — home after home flattened by U.S. strikes, across village after village. Most residents have yet to return.
Rolling along the bumpy roads in an armed convoy, Lt. Col. Galal Alenky remembered the fighting that raged around many of the destroyed homes this summer and fall. He stopped the convoy and walked amid the wreckage of a pickup, hit by a U.S. strike as ISIS militants, using the machine gun in its bed, fired on Alenky and his men. On the ground were burned ammo boxes and a shredded bulletproof vest. “These places that we liberated — it was not easy,” Alenky said. “We sacrificed for it with blood.”
The 47-year-old commander heads a battalion based in the shadow of Mt. Sinjar, where thousands of fleeing Yazidis took shelter from ISIS this summer. The Kurds control the mountain and the villages to its north, along with a small portion of Sinjar City, which sits at its southern base. The peshmerga’s push to win more of the city earlier this year has fizzled into bitter street fights. Alenky said ISIS wouldn’t be rolled back easily. “They’re coming from around the world,” he said. “And they’re not afraid to die. They don’t turn back.”
America’s presence around the front was something like a deity’s: everywhere and nowhere at once. There was only the rubble and the distant rumble of the strikes. Soldiers tried to divine the Obama administration’s intentions. Some wanted it to send combat troops. Others, like Alenky, rejected the idea, saying the U.S. had sacrificed enough to Iraq. “What we are doing is for us. We do it for honor,” he said. But he still felt in the dark about U.S. plans, wondering if America would send more soldiers and what their role would be. He was unsure if the Kurds would receive badly needed weapons — or how long they’d be asked to hold the lines.
The U.S. sends “mixed signals” to its allies on the ground, said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. President Obama vowed in September to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, but Doran said U.S. policy hasn’t followed suit. “They’re talking about a strategy designed to defeat ISIS, but when you look at the lines of operation, it doesn’t lead to that,” he said. “It is at very best a containment strategy.”
When the Obama administration submitted a request to Congress last week to authorize the use of military force against ISIS, it “muddied the waters even further,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The resolution promised an effort to defeat ISIS that relies on “our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground.” It left the option for the U.S. military to carry out limited ground operations, such as attacks on ISIS leadership, but ruled out “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” The authorization would last three years, extending into the next administration.
The text “reflects the fundamental ambivalence of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and its approach to the Middle East, which is that he never really wanted to be part of this fight,” Pollack said. “To the administration, they think it’s clear. They see this as the U.S. is going to take the fight to ISIS wherever they are, but this is not another Iraq War. But that’s not the way the rest of the world sees it.”
At issue for U.S. allies is uncertainty over the Obama administration’s commitment to a fight it seemed to enter unwillingly, against a backdrop of massacres and beheadings. “The president seems to be saying, 'I’m going to start by degrading ISIS and then destroy it,'” Pollack said. “But I think everyone’s concerned that he’s just going to decide to degrade. Is it more politically convenient for him to just degrade?”
“This is not a game,” said Kamal Kirkuki, who heads a sector of the front in the oil-producing city of Kirkuk. Some 150 miles southeast of Dohuk, it has become one of the Kurds’ most difficult battlefields. Peshmerga sit behind a dirt barricade along one side of a canal that runs through the city, with ISIS on the other, in small arms range. On a recent afternoon, parts of a peshmerga post on the barricade were torched from a recent ISIS incursion, which saw the militants use the cover of fog to cross the canal, inflicting heavy casualties. The path of destruction extended deeper into Kurdish territory: tattered buildings, snapped power lines, flames still thundering from an oil well. The Kurds repelled ISIS after regrouping behind U.S. strikes, but the soldiers were shaken, wary of another attack. “The U.S. has to be clear about what it decides,” Kirkuki said. “This is an enemy that takes advantage of hesitation.”
Some U.S. soldiers have already arrived in Iraq — and at one base around Kirkuk on a sunny afternoon, one stood shirtless near a machine-gun post on a rooftop, as hip-hop blared. Late last year, the Obama administration approved plans to send some 3,000 troops to the country to train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces and help coordinate airstrikes. The U.S. presence was an open secret at the base. “They’re our friends,” said a peshmerga officer, adding that the U.S. soldiers joined the peshmerga in the field but didn’t engage in combat.
U.S. officials have pushed the idea that there will be a major offensive to drive ISIS from Mosul in the coming months, spearheaded by Kurdish forces and, most importantly, the Iraqi military. Part of the plan until then is to lay the groundwork for that fight, one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “A ground assault on Mosul will be a much more difficult task than the fighting we have seen up to now,” the official said. “It will be urban combat with a lot of door-to-door fighting and a situation that has the potential for significant civilian casualties. The more that can be done to starve ISIS out of Mosul, the better the situation will be.”
Yet some observers — including peshmerga commanders — doubt the offensive will come anytime soon. “I don’t think the U.S. knows what it’s going to do next against ISIS,” said Firas Abi Ali, the head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at IHS Country Risk in London. “The problem for the U.S. is that there isn’t a viable end game here.”
In the city of Sinjar, at a hilltop post overlooking a sea of buildings held by ISIS below, peshmerga soldiers faced daily fire from snipers, mortars, and heavy machine guns. At his base a short drive away, the commander for the city, Brig. Gen. Hashem Barwari, cautioned that the ISIS fight was more trying for the peshmerga than the U.S. seemed to think. “The Europeans and Americans have huge armies, and if a unit in one of those armies gets destroyed, it can be replaced,” he said. “But for the peshmerga it’s a limited supply of people. When we have someone in the hospital, when we have someone who dies, there is no one to take his place.”
As dusk fell at the base, fighting erupted nearby, and Barwari walked calmly into his office as two stray bullets kicked up dust in the parking lot. “We have the will and we will fight to the end,” he said. “But it’s very difficult. The thing that has been created in the minds of the ISIS fighters is that they want to die. But we want to go home at the end of the day.”