KALAK, Iraq — The main front line between militants from the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters defending their capital, Irbil, was pitch black Friday night. Local residents had either fled or had turned off their lights and were staying indoors while the militants shelled the Kurdish lines and American and Iraqi aircraft responded with airstrikes.
Once a bustling strip of homes, markets and tea shops accustomed to the heavy flow of commerce along the highway between Mosul and Irbil, Kalak has undergone two recent transformations. The first came in early June when tens of thousands of refugees who fled the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul settled here in a vast tent city designed by the United Nations. The second came Thursday, when the refugees vanished following a surprise offensive by the Islamic State into Kurdish-held areas.
Now the town, 25 miles northwest of Irbil, has become the defensive line for Kurdish peshmerga militias and the flashpoint for the U.S. aerial campaign that three times on Friday saw American aircraft strike Islamic State positions a mile or so away.
Still, there are traditions to be kept, so within a mile or so of the front, small groups of Kurdish fighters were drinking tea at a handful of open roadside stands. Many were dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing _ baggy jumpsuits, wide cloth belts and colorful turbans _ and they carried an assortment of Russian-made assault rifles of 1970s vintage. One man, a professionally dressed volunteer from Irbil, carried a newer looking American-made M-16.
The men excitedly described the day’s events, which the Pentagon says began with a 1:45 p.m. attack by two F/A-18s on an Islamic State artillery piece, followed by a drone strike about 5 p.m. on an Islamic State mortar position about three miles away. Each attack was, in their parlance, delivered by an “Ef-Sitash,” Arabic for F-16, the famed American fighter-bomber, a description often used in the region for any American jet.
They described a series of strikes throughout the day in the direction of Bartella, Qaraqosh and Gwer, all Christian villages that fell to the Islamic State on Thursday, just a few miles away. Local residents contacted by phone described a day of heavy shelling in both directions, leading one less than devout Kurdish Muslim to joke that he had spent the day “reading the Quran and praying to the cross, just in case,” as American bombs and Islamic State shells landed near his family home.
Serving as a checkpoint rear guard for the front-line troops, these volunteers encouraged visitors to proceed up the highway to the very front, where a half-dozen pickup trucks mounted with heavy Russian-made 12.7mm “Dushka” machine guns blocked the highway. About 100 uniformed professional peshmerga fighters stood around, making sure no one went down the road toward Mosul and the Islamic State lines about a mile away.
Their silhouettes could be seen against the moonlight, but there was little manmade illumination as the troops followed standard military discipline for night-time fighting: Don’t give your enemy anything to aim at in the dark.
In contrast to the previous days’ tense but festive atmosphere, the peshmerga at the front, all trained soldiers, were polite but firm: No guests and no civilians touring the front lines.
“I’m really sorry but you must have permission to be here, you must leave,” said one noncommissioned officer after consulting a harried superior about a visitor’s taking photos. “You must get permission from the ministry in Irbil because someone was showing Daash pictures of our positions yesterday.” “Daash” is the Arabic acronym that everyone here uses to refer to the Islamic State.
But morale was clearly high, far better than Thursday, when every question posed was answered with a query about if and when the Americans would help against an enemy better equipped with heavy weapons it had recently looted from captured Iraqi arsenals.
Now that U.S. aircraft were making bombing runs, the nervous friendly chatter had been replaced by serious determination.
“It is very dangerous out here,” the NCO said apologetically. “You must return to Irbil and can come in the morning, with permission.”
Irbil itself remained on edge. Men from the Kurdish government’s feared internal security branch, the Asayesh, more heavily armed than usual, could be seen checking cars at roundabouts.
One Kurdish security official admitted that the Asayesh intelligence officers had been tracking a number of suspected Isalmic State “sleeper agents” who’d infiltrated Irbil among the thousands of refugees. While it’s unclear what methodology the security forces were using in their searches, Kurdish official said it had been effective.
“Daash promised suicide attacks in Irbil if we fought them,” one security officer said Friday night. “But by the hard work of our forces there have not been any yet.”
“Inshallah,” or God willing, he quickly added.