“Whenever I pass through this memorial, I see the names of my friends and I feel sad,” says Majeed, head of this garrison in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
A meters-long bridge was once all that separated the Peshmerga from ISIS here. Majeed says scores of his troops were slain at this outpost while repelling the terror group’s repeated attempts to take control of the area.
It took the Peshmerga a year — and air cover from the United States-led coalition — to push ISIS back. These days, the terror group is a more comfortable 4 kilometers away from the outpost, holed up in the town of Hawija, the group’s last stronghold in Iraq.
American-supplied mine-resistant vehicles, known as MRAPs, are parked outside the outpost, and some soldiers wear patches reading “Shoulder to Shoulder with the US” sewn into their fatigues. But although Kurdish forces here are trained and supplied by the US, they do not have America’s support in their bid for independence.
The outpost was supposed to be one of the staging grounds to retake Hawija, but that hasn’t happened yet. Since the referendum was carried out against the wishes of Baghdad, much of what pertains to the operation remains in flux. Majeed and his men expected Iraqi army units to arrive on Tuesday, but there’s no sign of them. The commander is still waiting.
“I’m here and ready,” Majeed said. “Why the Iraqi army aren’t here, I don’t know.”
An Iraqi armed forces spokesman told CNN the Peshmerga were never expected to play a key role in the push on Hawija. He wouldn’t comment further on the timeline of his force’s arrival, citing security concerns.
Iraqi forces and Shia paramilitary groups have almost completely encircled Hawija, with the exception of a path to Kirkuk from the west, which stretches out in front of the watchtower. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the second phase of the campaign against Hawija Friday.
Retaking Hawija raises the specter of a large military build-up of Iraqi troops — and their paramilitary counterparts — just outside the Kurdish outpost. It is here that the next chapter in Iraq’s war-weary history may erupt.
Kurdish fighters can sometimes see the fight from their sandbag sentry post on the hillside, as jets from the US-led coalition whizz overhead.
Their military position defends Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Baghdad has vehemently opposed the referendum, which was held across the KRG’s autonomous region and in disputed territories like Kirkuk.
Shortly before the referendum results were announced, Iraq’s parliament voted to authorize the deployment of troops to contested areas.
Iran and Turkey, which have their own sizable Kurdish populations, have repeatedly condemned the referendum. The United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations Security Council also opposed the vote, which they said would impede the fight against ISIS.
In what may signal the start of a series of punitive measures against Kurdish officials, Baghdad has ordered a halt to international flights to airports administered by the KRG, beginning Friday evening.
Kirkuk: the referendum’s tinderbox
Kirkuk has emerged as a flashpoint in Iraqi Kurdistan’s standoff with Baghdad for the same reasons ISIS fought so hard to capture it.
The province has one of the biggest oil fields in the country, something that is abundantly clear to anyone driving through the city, as the smell of oil wafts through the car windows. It also has an electricity plant that powers much of the surrounding areas.
Kurdish forces first took control of the city in 2014 amid their campaign against ISIS. The governor is Kurdish, as are most of the province’s council members.
On Thursday, Kirkuk seemed quiet. Pedestrians were a rare sight on streets lined with bullet-scarred houses.
A multi-ethnic city whose population is made up of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds, and includes those from Christian, Shia and Sunni Muslim backgrounds, this place is no stranger to conflict; in recent days, however, tensions here have hit fever pitch.
Sheikh Burhan al-Mezher, an Arab tribal leader, says his community is “constantly under threat and at risk.” Showing CNN anonymous Facebook messages containing threats to harm his children, he says he “can only pray that this will end and God will bring peace and stability to the whole of Iraq.”
Skirmishes occurred almost nightly in the run-up to the referendum and at least one person died in the fighting, according to Ali Mehdi, the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.
The day before the poll, Mehdi told CNN that non-Kurds in the city were being pressured to vote “Yes.”
“The policies of the Kurds in Kirkuk (are) Saddam Hussein’s polic(ies),” says Mehdi, referring to the former Iraqi dictator, ousted following the US-led invasion in 2003.
There have violent clashes between Turkmen and Kurds in Kirkuk in the wake of the vote. Turkey has warned that any attack on the region’s Turkmen minority would constitute a military red line.
“(The) Turkish army will intervene immediately if our Turkmen brothers (in the disputed Kirkuk province) are physically targeted,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.
Fears of revenge attacks
Those fears are echoed elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan, albeit in hushed tones.
“We believe that the Kurdish people have the right to determine their fate … but Arabs are worried that any clashes that might happen in Kirkuk will lead to revenge attacks on us here,” says Ahmad Tayeb, 30, who has lived in the Kurdish capital of Erbil for 10 years. “We can handle a blockade, but we’re afraid of sectarian wars.”
A few feet away from Tayeb, a former Peshmerga fighter squeezed on a bench next to a group of friends says he looks forward to the day Kurds are physically separated from Arabs.
“I want to be split from the Arabs,” says Bewyar Abdullah, 28. “For that reason, I voted — to break away from them. All of our history with them is violent. We are not Arab and people have to understand that.”
Two Arab women sit within earshot as he speaks, but Abdullah says he doesn’t care if they overhear him.
Other Kurds say they voted “Yes” because they want to see a democratic state that will respect the rights of minorities, something KRG President Masoud Barzani has pledged in multiple interviews.
“There would be no difference between Arab, Turkmen, Kurd, Persian or anyone in this state,” Kafiah al-Raouf Sadi, a voter, told CNN at a polling station in Erbil on Monday.
‘A right to defend ourselves’
Despite the possibility of military confrontation with Baghdad and Ankara, Kurdish troops in Kirkuk say there is nothing to fear.
“We’ve been like a thirsty man desperate for water, that’s how we’ve longed for our own own state, for our country,” says the Peshmerga’s Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Youssef.
And Maj. Majeed says that for now, at least, it’s business as usual at his garrison.
“We are helping the Iraqi army because we have one enemy, which is ISIS,” he says. “Our headquarters has told us that we are not fighting Iraq. We are extending our hand in peace.
“But if they attack us, we have a right to defend ourselves.”