Iraqi Kurds look to sky for breakthrough against the Islamic State

A truck lies stranded on its side in a no man’s land between Kurdish fighters and jihadists ensconced behind minefields, a stalemate the Kurds hope US-led air strikes can break.

Crouched behind a wall of sandbags with a finger on the trigger, an Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter has the truck in his sights, and the strategic town of Jalawla behind it.

The Islamic State (IS) jihadists seized Jalawla, at the gateway to Iraqi Kurdistan and on the road to Baghdad, on August 11.

The peshmerga fighters have since failed to make headway in efforts to recapture it.

A trench dug in the ochre earth leads to a forward Kurdish outpost, where some 30 peshmerga in uniforms ranging from camouflage to traditional baggy trousers and large belt are sheltered behind bottle-green sandbags.

“Beware of IS snipers,” one of them warns.

Under a scorching sun, a call to prayer sounds from a mosque inside Jalawla. Behind the sandbags, the attitude ranges from vigilance to boredom.

The buffer zone is riddled with mines laid by the jihadists, deterring any Kurdish advance, says Colonel Ali Abdullah.

The Jalawla front is also of strategic importance for its proximity to Iran, with the border a mere 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the east.

“If we don’t retake Jalawla, the whole region will be in danger, right up to the Iranian border,” says General Jafar Sheikh Mustapha, a military and political chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of regional president Massud Barzani.

Two months ago, the IS militants advanced to an intersection of roads leading to Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

But by the end of August, the Kurds had forced the jihadists to pull back to Jalawla, 130 kilometres from Baghdad, and the frontline has been frozen ever since.

The retreating IS fighters blew up a bridge, reducing it to a mass of concrete and metal rods. The Kurds built a crossing with boulders and rocks for their 4×4 vehicles.

Entrenched behind the minefield, the jihadists have posted snipers to keep out any sappers.

The only way to break the deadlock is for the US-led coalition to send in its warplanes. “They must bomb here,” insists Colonel Abdullah.

– ‘Not stronger than Saddam’ –

Under fire, they open up with two heavy machineguns, newly delivered by France as part of the coalition’s efforts to back up its air campaign with boots on the ground provided by local forces.

Some of the peshmerga are battle-hardened fighters, while others are new to the front, like 20-year-old Sakar who broke off his biology studies to sign up.

A Russian assault rifle slung over his shoulder and four magazines in the pockets of his bullet-proof vest, Sakar says he received no formal training but in any case knows how to use guns.

A few kilometres away, another Kurdish post dominates the valley but is penned in on three sides by IS-held territory.

“That’s an IS car,” says one fighter, pointing to a speeding vehicle which leaves behind a trail of dust.

Between exchanges of gunfire, the Kurds are waiting for the coalition to soften up the IS position with air strikes. But the peshmerga, whose name translates as “those who confront death” and with their renown for prowess in battle, are determined to hold on.

“I have fought all my life,” says an ageing peshmerga with a heavily creased face. “I fought against (toppled dictator) Saddam Hussein and the IS is not stronger than Saddam.”