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The warring and the waiting

The road towards Mosul from Erbil is strewn with refugee families.

Refugees in Erbil, above, and the Peshmerga fighters at Khazir, right, watch and wait
Refugees in Erbil, above, and the Peshmerga fighters at Khazir, right, watch and wait

Abandoned petrol stations and half-constructed shells of buildings house hundreds of destitute Iraqis, the majority of whom fled from the city of Mosul - now an Islamic State (IS) stronghold - after the Sunni extremist group took over the city in early June.

Across the Tigris River and into the Nineveh plains, the refugees are gone. Instead the roads are lined with checkpoints, which have little traffic in an area where regular people no longer dare to travel. Khazir is now the last line of defence between the capital of Erbil, and Islamic State militants.

Soldiers are highly visible throughout Khazir, which was once a bustling border entrance to the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR). It is now completely void of civilians. The atmosphere at Khazir is tense, although the soldiers do their best to seem relaxed about the current situation.

On August 7, the black flag of the Islamic State was raised on the checkpoint here during an aggressive forward campaign by the militant extremists who made large advances towards the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, overtaking dozens of towns and villages in the process. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters retreated, but with the help of United States airstrikes on Islamic State positions, Khazir was taken back days later. It is now at the frontline of Iraq's latest war.

Khazir checkpoint now flies the flag of Kurdistan, but beyond the Peshmerga base, Kurdish flags are nonexistent. This is a dangerous no-man's land, where Islamic State snipers are active and prevalent. Even the thousands of dirt-stained UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee tents of Khazir Camp have been abandoned. More than 5000 people fled for a second time when the Islamic State advanced toward the camp.

Peshmerga positions are now dotted around the no-man's land, perilously looking out on Islamic State positions between one and two miles away.

"The American planes were very effective in assisting in stopping the Islamic State's advances. But [The Americans] only bombed moving targets. The problem is they won't bomb villages. This one is empty except for Islamic State and their snipers," a senior official close to Kurdistan's deputy Prime Minster's office told the Sunday Herald, pointing towards the village of Azara two miles to the north. "The American planes would not bomb the village, fearing that there might be civilians there which is understandable."

Straight ahead, between Khazir and the village, a dark line of dirt intersects the only route to Mosul, the mound continuing on in each direction for as far as the eye can see. This literal line in the sand is a new border, declared and laid there by the Islamic State when they retreated last week after a spate of US airstrikes in and around the checkpoint.

Kurdish troops don't dare to cross the border. Pick-up trucks of armed soldiers drive towards it before making a sharp right or left turn, into the arid Iraqi desert in the direction of other dug-in positions.

This tactic of creating a border, and virtually constructing the parameters of the new caliphate that the Islamic State professes, has been utilised in other places. In Mariam Beg, a village southwest of Kirkuk, Islamic State fighters dug a dirt boundary over the road north towards Mosul, while Peshmerga forces watched.

At Khazir, in the frontline trenches, halfway between the checkpoint and this new makeshift border, Peshmerga soldiers look out anxiously on Azara from their positions. This week the Peshmerga have suffered losses from Islamic State snipers, as the extremists' tactics in battle have become more sophisticated.

These losses however have only resulted in further support from locals. Residents remain confident in Peshmerga forces, despite many towns now seemingly holding a border with the Islamic State.

"We are sure that the Peshmerga will hold this town and Khazir," Omar Ameen, a resident of nearby Kalak said. "But if something did happen, we would never run. We all have guns and if we need to fight we will fight. The women and men here will fight. Anything for our home."

At the front, an edgy ceasefire has been hesitantly observed over the past week, but sporadic fire and clashes have still resulted in both Peshmerga and Islamic State deaths. Kurdish soldiers take turns observing Islamic State movements, some nervously peering over the sandbags, while the bravado of others has them standing on top, looking over the dusty plains.

UNCHR humanitarian tents seized from the desolate refugee camp are being utilised as makeshift barracks for entrenched soldiers, who sleep at their posts aware that Islamic State militants are notorious for advancing in the night and under the cover of darkness. Soldiers in the trench told the Sunday Herald that they had no idea what future plans would consist of, but they anticipated they would be in the same trenches observing the current makeshift border for some time.

As in Khazir, the town of Makhmour, south of Erbil, has been reclaimed by Peshmerga forces with the help of US air strikes after previously being taken by the Islamic State. It remains on the frontline. Makhmour, sitting on the Kurdish southwest frontline between the Peshmerga and the Islamic State, is a virtual ghost town.

"I have returned, but my family haven't. It is not safe here," Tareeq Khader, a shopkeeper from Makhmour explained.

"When the Islamic State first came towards the town we didn't see them we just saw the mortars coming into the city. But we have American bombs on them now, they are here to help, but also here for oil I am sure. But they get what they want, and we get rid of the Islamic State. We are happy with that. We need them here."

At the town's entrance sits an armoured Peshmerga truck with one wheel missing and its windscreen perforated with bullet holes. In the town, other Peshmerga vehicles have suffered a similar fate. Many of the vehicles now being used are simply pick-up trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back.

"We have a lot of targets around Makhmour so we have created a defensive plan for the city," Area General, Najat Ali, told the Sunday Herald.

"We have a line around Makhmour, where we are fighting. We need weapons to defeat this enemy. They [Islamic State] have modern weapons, tanks, jeeps. We do not want countries like America to give us troops. We just need weapons."

Although historically a strong guerrilla force, particularly adept at fighting in the mountains of eastern Turkey, northeast Syria, northwest Iran, and north Iraq (historic Kurdistan) the Kurdish forces lack sophisticated and modern equipment.

Damaged vehicles are being hastily patched up and put back into battle rather than being replaced, while many of the soldiers in Makhmour and on other fronts carry a variety of old guns and have mismatched protective body armour vests. Islamic State militants, on the other hand, are equipped with modern American machinery - gained from the fleeing US-trained Iraqi army during the beginning of the current war - and are reported to make three million US dollars a day through selling oil on the black market.

While General Ali welcomed the recent United States airstrikes that helped reclaim the town, he said he believed the US may have other motives in helping Kurdish forces defeat the Islamic State.

"The USA absolutely has its own interests, but the USA needs our success here because we are allied to America," General Ali said. "We have a lot of people volunteering, ready to fight, but the American strikes were very important for us."

While the Peshmerga is fully equipped in terms of troop numbers, volunteer groups have begun to pop up in villages across the front lines, including Makhmour. Men who fled the city during Islamic State's takeover have returned to fight.

From construction workers to teachers, furniture makers to retirees, regular men from the town have come together and armed themselves, determined not to run again. The men work in tandem with the Peshmerga, actually taking orders from the official force, attempting to strengthen the town's defence and stop the advance of the Islamic State from recurring.

The volunteers patrol the town, some in paramilitary gear, with an array of weapons, many of which look straight from the shelves of an antique shop rather than the modern day battlefields of Iraq.

"They came and started to shoot the city, I fled with my family but I have returned alone," Qwares Sadiq, a retiree from Makhmour told the Sunday Herald. "I fought for my people in 1974 and 1991, now I have a gun and I will fight again. We know how to fight and we are ready."

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