Kobane, Kirkuk – In the middle of the vast green plains of southern Kirkuk, Farhad Nezar, and a group of mostly young men, roam around the dirty village streets carrying light and medium machine guns.
The force that Nezar leads is unique because it’s exclusively made up of the followers of a minority religious group known as Kakai. It is formed to defend the non-Muslim minority against a possible attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Kakai faith, also known as Yarsanism, is a syncretistic mystical faith that is believed to have originated in Kurdish dominated parts of western Iran in the 14th century. Its followers speak a dialect of Kurdish known as Gorani and are scattered across northern Iraq, Iran and many live in exile in Europe and North America.
The Kakai Battalion, as Nezar’s force is known, was established in January and has around 680 fighters in its ranks. It is answerable to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Peshmerga.
The brutality that ISIL demonstrated in dealing with religious minorities in Iraq and Syria prompted the Kakais to opt for forming their own protection force.
Last June, Iraqi army forces abandoned their positions in Kirkuk when ISIL fighters ran over the neighbouring areas of Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces. And the Kurdish Peshmerga failed to protect the Yazidi and Christian-dominated areas in Nineveh plains, leading to a large-scale massacre and brutalisation of the Yazidi community in August.
“We as Kakais feel very threatened,” said Nezar, who like almost every other Kakai man here sports a big moustache that covers his mouth. “If they [ISIL] get their hands on us, they will attempt a genocide of our people.”
On a pleasant recent sunny afternoon, Nezar and his men walk rather cheerfully to the main road to check out the situation on the front line which is a couple of kilometres away.
They stand next to a sign that identifies the village as Kobane. Inspired by the stiff resistance that the Kurdish forces put up against ISIL in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, the locals here decided to go for the namesake.
ISIL’s black banner can be spotted on a hill in the distance.
“Don’t gather here all of you. They might fire mortar rockets at us,” Nezar, a former major in the Iraqi army and commander of the Kakai Battalion tells his fighters.
The Kakai religion shares elements with Islam and other Mesopotamian religions.
The followers of the faith hold Imam Ali – a holy figure among Muslims particularly the Shia – in high esteem. That has led some to believe that Kakais give Imam Ali a divine status.
Kakais believe in reincarnation, a notion that is also shared in certain ways by the followers of the Yazidi faith.
The Iraqi Kobane and its surrounding areas, populated mostly by Kakais, have been largely quiet compared to most other parts of the front line between Kurdish-ruled areas and ISIL that runs over 1,000km.
The most recent battle here took place on January 10, but ISIL fighters could not penetrate through Peshmerga lines.
Kakais are a small community and there is no exact figure of their numbers. Sherzad Kakai, a notable person in the community, estimates there are around 75,000 Kakais in Iraq.
The group has been marginalised and subjected to persecution for much of the contemporary history of Iraq.
Ever since the Kurdish Peshmerga forces extended their control to this part of Kirkuk after Iraqi forces deserted their positions in the face of ISIL’s assault, the Kakais say they have reasserted themselves.
The village of Kobane itself once used to be almost completely Kakai.
But like many other parts of Kirkuk, it was subjected to a campaign of demographic gerrymandering by Saddam Hussein’s government in mid-1970s and beyond.
During the campaign, known as Arabisation, hundreds of Arab tribesmen were settled in this area by the government. As a result, many Kakais lost their lands.
Kobane, formerly known as Arab Koi, is now actually a predominantly Arab village with over 50 Arab households and around 30 Kakai families.
The fear of being uprooted from their areas has galvanised the Kakais into action.
Of the seven Kakai villages in this corner of Kirkuk province, one named Albu Mohammed is under ISIL control. “Some Kakai villages in Gwer, Hamdaniya and in Kirkuk are controlled by Daesh [ISIL],” Liza Kakai, a Kurdish Kakai activist said. “Just like the Yezidis, we are afraid of extremists after the arrival of Daesh [ISIL] in Mosul.”
In August, ISIL destroyed some holy shrines in Kakai villages near Hamdaniya area, west of Mosul city, ISIL’s major stronghold in Iraq. ISIL now controls six Kakai villages in western Nineveh.
A unit of the Kakai Battalion is based in the Kakai villages in Nineveh province for now.
The religious minority has been a target of ISIL’s extremist predecessors in Iraq as well. Dozens of Kakais have died in suicide attacks and assassinations since 2003.
“We want to protect our culture,” says Sherzad Nezar, a Kakai man from a nearby village of Shalyar. “We want strong international support.”
There are some holy religious sites in southern Kirkuk, around Daquq district, that Kakais fear will be destroyed if ISIL gets its hands on them.
The vast majority of the residents of Kobane and neighbouring villages have decided to stay behind despite the precarious and uncertain conditions.
Hayaz Hamid, 22, used to spent most of his time working on the family farm. Now, for many of the villagers here it’s risky to cultivate their land as they are within reach of ISIL fire.
Hamid has now taken up arms like the majority of young men in this area.
He says he is emotionally attached to the land and fellow members of his vulnerable community.
“We just can’t accept other people to occupy our villages and land,” Hamid says with his AK-47 gun hung from his shoulder. “We consider it a sacred and necessary duty to defend our areas.”
Meanwhile, like many parts of the country, communal tensions have heightened here since ISIL attacks began.
Nezar, the Kakai commander, says the local Arabs have not volunteered to take up arms to defend the area.
But some Arab villagers here say if push comes to shove, they will defend their homes.
“Life is normal here so far,” says Hamid Taha, an Arab resident of Kobane who is a farmer and a shopkeeper. “We will join them [the Kakais] if ISIL will attack.”