KIRKUK — The heat is suffocating. Not a single tree or patch of grass, nor any illusion of finding some shade. There are no hills either in these desperately flat plains, where several oil well flares are burning in the distance.

The annual summer furnace is not stopping the Peshmerga fighters, young and smiling, from coming and going along a dangerous frontline, where a vague embankment shelters a tank and a row of artillery.

The Islamists are about two kilometers away, on the other side of a bridge above a river, which may have dried to a trickle by this point in the season. The man in charge here is Colonel Fatah, whose headquarters is a prefabricated cube. A bit plump, with a Chaplin-like moustache, he seems to have just stepped from a period of lethargy. He livens up a bit when he starts talking about strategy. “We are not in an attacking position,” he says. “We have come to defend Kirkuk because the Iraqi army has fled.”

Kirkuk, a big, dirty, faceless and overbuilt city, rich from the surrounding oil fields, is both multiethnic (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen) and multireligious (Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Zaidiyya…). Violent clashes are nothing new.

But for the Kurds, the city is their Jerusalem, the one that makes the independence of Kurdistan conceivable in some undetermined future. They have been fighting the Arabs over the question for a long time. Even if they do not admit it out loud, the surprise conquest of Mosul on June 10 and of a large part of the Nineveh province by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant of Syria (ISIS, or “Da’ish”, in Arabic), combined with the panic of the army in the north of Iraq, was good news.

The Kurds already controlled Kirkuk politically — 10 of 12 members of Parliament. Now, they control it militarily. And with a sense of accomplishment. They claim to have saved the town from those they call the Barbarians. Colonel Fatah’s second-in-command, Captain Firman, is positive. “Take the brigade 47: It fled without firing a single shot. We, the Peshmerga, don’t run away after hearing a few salvos.”

Stop-and-go war

The frontline, located around 15 kilometers away from the city, was formed from this mass desertion. On one side, the Sunni provinces largely controlled by ISIS and its allies; on the other, Iraqi Kurdistan, which now includes Kirkuk. Until now, there were only skirmishes, some deadly, between ISIS and the Peshmerga. It is no longer a time of peace, but it is also not war yet.

“Let’s say it’s a non-continuous war we are giving to the Islamic State," says Mohamed Kamal, a Kurdistan Democratic Party member of Parliament.

On the front, Captain Firman points out that the enemy that he and his men are facing is not actually ISIS, but rather fighters from tribes that joined the Islamists to form a large Sunni front. According to him, they are few in number — around 100 men. But they are well-armed with mortars, RPGs, machine guns and six or seven tanks taken in Mosul. “We lost three men the day before yesterday,” Firman says.

In reality, the umbilical cord between Kirkuk and Baghdad has not been completely cut yet. The town's police forces did not flee after the fall of Mosul. And there's a good reason. Unlike the army officers, the police officers, Arab or Kurdish, are from Kirkuk.

In Kirkuk — Photo: Facebook group

Their head, General Sarhard Mohamed, was wounded by shrapnel last Tuesday when he came to “give a hand” to the police in Beshir, a village made of Shia Turkmen that was surrounded by the Sunni attackers at the time. The Sunni have since taken control.

But today, the 46-year-old is back leading his men. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “Around 4 a.m., the rebels attacked us with cars they took from the army. They came from six different directions and surrounded us. My driver and my bodyguard were killed, as well as four other police officers. Ares, my 16-year-old son who I brought with me, was wounded at my side. Then the other policemen deserted us, even the Peshmerga that had come with us. We managed to escape by walking for three hours.”

Talk of war crimes

In Beshir, “war crimes” have been committed against the population, says Rushdie Chalabi, who presides over a Shia Turkmen party. “The village was pillaged and burned down,” he says. “Seven children and 15 young people were executed by the Islamists, five women were hung to death, and the bodies of three men were then attached to water tanks with their arms crossed.”

Though there is no physical evidence of these crimes, this sort of information feeds the fear of the non-Sunni people living in the region. The Sunni-Shia division now runs through the Turkmen community. All the massacres that Rushdie Chalabi reports in the neighboring Sunni provinces of Saladin and Diyala happened in Shia Turkmen villages. “The rebels haven’t taken any of the Sunni Turkmen villages,” he points out.

Will Kirkuk meet the same fate? Officially, the city’s population is 1.4 million, but the figures, for political reasons, seem to be considerably exaggerated. It is more likely under one million. At least half are Kurds, and between and 35% and 40% are Sunni Arabs. This is why Kurdish leaders fear that ISIS could find support inside this sizeable Sunni minority, which has complained of major discrimination since the Shia came to power in Iraq in 2005. “It’s true, the situation here is not good,” says Mohamed Kamal, the Kurdish MP. “And some neighborhoods could start helping the rebels.” 

Hamad Amid Obeid, the head of a coalition of small Arab parties hostile to ISIS, shares the same concern. “The Arabs work along with Da’ish (ISIS) because they aren’t happy. Ordinary people support them only because they are the strongest among the Sunni,” he explains.

Mohamed Hussein, one of these “ordinary people” from the neighboring town of Mutlaqa, which was also taken by ISIS, concedes that point. “The army fled on June 10, as did the police the following day. Then the Da’ish fighters arrived. They committed no act of violence against us [the Sunnis]. They told us, ‘Relax, you’re our brothers. You can leave town if you like.’”

Hamad Amid Obeid is skeptical. “Whether we like it or not, since the Mosul attack, there are now three Iraqs: the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurdish. It will be like that for a long time. And tomorrow will be even darker than today.”