On this lonely stretch of parched earth in a tiny farming village, where the only sounds are the bleating of thirsty sheep and the howling of a scorching wind, the sense that something is wrong is undeniable. Dugarkan has been abandoned by fearful locals and is now occupied by a group of armed men who stare off menacingly into the dusty horizon, looking for trouble.
Out there, say the men—all former members of the Iraqi army—is an enemy they don’t necessarily fear, but would be foolhardy not to respect. Dugarkan lies at the southwest corner of Erbil province, in the relative safety of Iraq’s Kurdish north. But 15 km away is Nineveh province, whose capital Mosul was overrun by militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) on June 10. From there, ISIS, joined by Iraq’s homegrown Sunni insurgents and disenfranchised tribes, has pushed onward into outlying towns and villages, taking Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Baiji, a strategic oil refinery, and stretching their influence along the entire border of Iraq’s Kurdish region. This week, ISIS declared an Islamic caliphate, or state, in the area it controls across Syria and Iraq.
Iraq’s army has crumbled in the face of the onslaught, and the armed men in Dugarkan have watched it happen first-hand. “We used to be part of that army,” says Sherzad Muhammad Saeed, a stout career soldier with a baby face that belies the years he’s spent taking orders in the searing heat of Iraq’s rural wastelands. “We were stationed near here when the terrorists made their advance. We watched as our Arab commanders turned and ran. But we are Kurds, and this is our homeland. We had to stay to protect the lines.”
Saeed is not taking orders these days. He is giving them. As the highest-ranking officer, a captain, who stood his ground when his commanders abandoned their posts, he now has 70 men under his charge, all Kurds. Still dressed in their Iraqi army fatigues, they have turned the derelict Dugarkan into a front-line defence against ISIS, erecting a dirt berm around their post and planting a Kurdish flag on top of it—a message to the enemy, Saeed says.
What equipment they have was left behind by their retreating Iraqi unit: assault rifles, grenades, rocket launchers and, most useful of all, an armoured personnel carrier and a Humvee with a mounted heavy machine gun. It’s a formidable arsenal, considering the flat, open space that lies between them and their enemy. A few kilometres away, they can clearly see Arab villages, close enough that they’ve seen ISIS fighters enter and leave but far enough that any attempt at an advance would be spotted immediately, giving the men enough time to defend themselves and call in reinforcements.
Their post is one of many that have sprung up along the border between Iraq’s Kurdish-majority region and its Sunni-majority areas to the south and west. The entire area used to be under the control of the second division of the Iraqi army, boasting the most experienced fighters in all of Iraq. That didn’t mean much when ISIS attacked—the division all but disintegrated. Potentially thousands of Kurdish soldiers remained, hopeful that the time had come to establish their own Kurdistan, separate from Iraq.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do with these soldiers,” says Ibrahim Shekhala Ibrahim, the mayor of Makhmur, a farming town a few kilometres east of Dugarkan. The plan, he adds, is to absorb them into the peshmerga, or armed Kurdish forces. Sitting in his air-conditioned office, the clean-cut young mayor explains that what has happened was the inevitable outcome of a false construction: Iraq’s army—Iraq itself, he says—could never survive in its current form. “Now everything will change,” Ibrahim says. “Now it is time to separate.”
He is right in one sense: Iraq’s leadership—the Kurds as well as the Shia-led government in Baghdad—have done a poor job of bridging Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions. The breakdown of the army was only the latest in the domino effect of collapsing institutions that began with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and accelerated with the American withdrawal in 2011. Even prior to that, during Saddam Hussein’s rule, ethnic and sectarian divisions were manipulated to maintain a grip on power.
What is clear now is that the country is disintegrating along old and dangerous fault lines: Shia (both Arab and Turkmen), Arab Sunni and Kurdish. Among groups that recently tolerated each other, living side by side, a bloody sectarian and tribal civil war has suddenly taken root—the kind that can lead to genocide and sink Iraq in warfare that could last a generation.
Amid the ISIS offensive, some areas of ethnic uniformity have remained relatively calm—in the Shia south and the Kurdish north—while the Sunni-dominated Anbar province has fallen too easily to Arab Sunni insurgents. The real war is playing out where Sunnis, Shias and Kurds live side by side.
Tuz Khurmatu, a town of some 60,000 sitting precariously on the northern border of Saladin province with Kirkuk, is one of those places. Its Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Turkmen (Sunni Turkmen identify with their Shia brethren) have witnessed years of struggle over control of their small, dusty way station on the road to Baghdad, 200 km to the south. For a period, Tuz Khurmatu was controlled by the Kirkuk governorate; now the Kurds claim it as part of their future Kurdistan. The Turkmen beg to differ, while the Arabs, a minority here, eye everyone else with suspicion.
In 2012, Kurdish peshmerga forces moved into the town, sparking a brief battle with the Iraqi army. More recently, ISIS has left its bloody footprint here. On June 10, as militants were swarming into Mosul, a double bomb attack in Tuz Khurmatu’s Shia Turkmen district killed 30 and wounded another 100. A week later, ISIS militants attacked Shia Turkmen villages north of the town, reportedly massacring at least 40 villagers, including women and children. Days after that, 200 militants attempted to take control of the road south to Baghdad.
“We drove them back,” says Capt. Baez Ahmed Khadr, the commander of the Kurdish peshmerga base in Tuz Khurmatu. From his hilltop installation, with its commanding views south, he points out how the attack unfolded: “That town there is Suleiman Beg,” he says. “It is about 10 km from here and controlled by ISIS, along with other Sunni militant groups. They pushed closer to this town and tried to set up a checkpoint on the road. But we are here to guard Kurdish territory. We will not attack them, but if they encroach on us, we will defend our lines.”
Throughout the Kurdish-controlled areas, these are the rules of engagement: Let ISIS do what it wants in other areas, but do not allow it to enter Kurdistan. In some places the adversaries are close enough to each other that non-action seems almost farcical and perhaps criminal. During the massacre of the Shia Turkmen villagers, Khadr says he did not order his fighters to intervene. “It’s not our territory,” he says frankly. “It’s not our fight.”
About 50 km north of Tuz Khurmatu is the village of Taza Khurma. It also sits on the very edge of what the Kurds consider their homeland and the area now controlled by ISIS. Taza Khurma is claimed by Kurdish leaders as part of Kurdistan and, on the town’s western outskirts, another contingent of peshmerga have set up a base in the aftermath of the ISIS massacre. “The militants are right there,” says Col. Salim Muhammad, a steely-eyed unit commander, pointing over the crest of a three-metre-high dirt berm his men have set up. “We have to be very careful. We know they will not stop until they have destroyed Iraq, and they will do anything to achieve their goals, even sending out suicide bombers pretending to be journalists.”
This is a much better-armed contingent of peshmerga than the one in Tuz Khurmatu. It has tanks and artillery, and the men—hundreds, by the looks of it (Muhammad refuses to give a number)—all wear body armour and ballistic helmets. Walking through his outpost, Muhammad says his men engage with the militants every day. “We’ve had no fighting so far today,” he says, “but an attack can happen at any moment.”
As if on cue, a sniper round zips over his head and hits a concrete barrier behind him. The colonel is unfazed. His walkie-talkie crackles and he is told that a contingent of ISIS fighters has been spotted making its way toward them. He gives the order to send fighters out to engage them. The tour is over. On his way back to the bunker, Muhammad explains that his peshmerga will only fight if the militants attack first. Like his counterpart in Tuz Khurmatu, he says the massacre of Shia civilians is not his concern. “We are here to protect the Kurdish lines.”
The Shia are getting the message: No one will defend them. “The Kurds will protect their own people,” says one middle-aged man, a day labourer living in Tuz Khurmatu’s Turkmen district, requesting anonymity. “They’ve set up their base next to the Kurdish neighbourhoods and will come out to fight for them but they will never fight for us.” Instead, he adds, Turkmen are arming themselves, looking fearfully at Suleiman Beg to the south and the Sunni radicals there, chomping at the bit for a chance to spill Shia blood.
“No one interacts with each other anymore,” says Kamal Muhammad, a 37-year-old shopkeeper in Tuz Khurmatu’s Kurdish enclave. “The Turkmen hate the Kurds because they think we want to throw them out of their lands; we do not want to be seen with them because they are Shia, and we all mistrust the Arabs because the terrorists are so close. They might be working for them.”
That pattern is repeating itself wherever diversity exists in Iraq. Scenes of Shia militiamen in Baghdad marching to the drumbeat of sectarian war, peshmerga soldiers at checkpoints pulling any Arabs they meet out of their cars and harassing them, and Sunnis turning to the most extreme group their religion has ever seen for support against what they perceive as an existential threat.
If there is a hope for Iraq, it is this: The Sunni insurgency is also divided. Much of the media attention has so far focused on ISIS, for good reason. It is the most brutal and relentless of the forces sweeping through Iraq. But there are others: former Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein’s legacy, local Sunni tribes who have been marginalized by the Shia-led government in Baghdad and local Sunni militias like the Naqshbandis and Ansar al-Islam. Each has its own agenda: the Baathists are Iraqi nationalists who would like to see Sunni power returned to Baghdad; the tribes would likely settle for a larger role for Sunnis in the central government and more control over local governance; the militias are the closest to ISIS in terms of radical Islamist ideology, but evidence from Syria suggests they are not united. Ansar al-Islam works closely with Syrian rebel groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, both of which have turned on ISIS in Syria.
There are some encouraging signs. Reports from Hawija, a Sunni town 60 km west of Kirkuk, indicate rebel groups are fighting with ISIS over control of oil and weapons. Khadr, the peshmerga commander in Tuz Khurmatu, says that after his forces drove insurgents back to Suleiman Beg, his local informants told him the groups began fighting among themselves. “They blamed each other for the failure,” he says. “We killed one of the ISIS commanders and then there was chaos among them.”
Neither of the reports can be independently verified, but recent history offers enough evidence to support the claims. During the height of the insurgency in the mid-2000s, it was the brutality of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the forerunner to ISIS, that turned the Sunni population against them. The tribes rose up, and AQI was defeated.
For now, a common goal binds them: wresting control of Sunni territory away from the central government. If trouble comes, it will rise out of ISIS’s attempts to impose its brand of puritanical Islam on an unwilling Sunni population.
It is a glimmer, but a fading glimmer. Iraq’s diverse ethnic and sectarian groups have never been more divided. “We are living in purgatory,” says Saeed, the commander of the Kurdish fighters in Dugarkan. Before he can finish his thought, his eyes catch the trail of dust from two cars speeding toward his outpost. They are approaching from the direction of an area controlled by ISIS. “Arabs,” Saeed mutters. He takes his weapon, motions to his men, and they fan out, determined to hold the line.