Maktab Khalid, Kirkuk – Abdullah Saeed and his men stood on top of a dirt pile by an artificial water canal that separated them from the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the sprawling plains of southwest Kirkuk.
ISIL fighters were just about one kilometre away. The occasional sound of mortar and artillery explosions disrupted the serene silence of the late afternoon.
The look of vigilance on the faces of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters was revealing: ISIL has come too close to the strategic city of Kirkuk, home to a mix of ethnic and religious groups, and a major oil production centre. It’s a mere 20-minute drive from Maktab Khalid to Kirkuk.
ISIL fighters appear to have set their eyes on this coveted prize. On the night of January 29, they launched a series of attacks on the city’s environs from four sides.
“They got to this area by exploiting the weather conditions. It was foggy,” said Saeed, a battalion commander, with a tense tone.
Holding a G-36 assault rifle recently donated to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces by Germany, he explained that the militants broke through the Kurdish defence in the nearby outposts of Mala Abdullah to the north and Meryam Bag to the south.
Saeed and other Peshmerga fighters said they need anti-fog goggles since ISIL fighters have demonstrated a pattern of attacking during severe weather conditions such as fog and heavy rain.
The coalition warplanes, Saeed added, cannot assist the Kurdish fighters under those conditions.
ISIL fighters captured around a dozen Peshmerga troops in Maktab Khalid and occupied the nearby Khabza oil field, where thick black smoke is still rising after the group detonated a number of oil wells.
It took the Kurdish forces nearly two days of intense fighting, and assistance from the US-led coalition, to drive ISIL out of the areas they had occupied.
Dozens of Kurdish troops died in the battle, including two senior generals. The death toll on ISIL’s part was also heavy as dozens of corpses were left in the spots that the Peshmerga retook.
An ISIL cell of four fighters also launched an assault on an empty hotel in the city leading to heavy clashes with security forces. Three of the attackers were killed and one was detained.
The seemingly coordinated attacks reflected a strategy to destabilise the city from within while ISIL fighters were trying to push their way through from outside, but to no avail as they met with heavy Peshmerga resistance not far from the city’s outskirts.
Kurds say they cannot afford to lose Kirkuk. For decades it’s been at the heart of their multiple insurgencies against various regimes in Baghdad in pursuit of more autonomy.
Since mid-June, they have had it under firm control when Iraqi army troops abandoned their positions in the face of ISIL-led assaults and other Sunni insurgent groups in northern Iraq.
The province’s oil is now being exported through a pipeline built by the Kurdistan Regional Government and is a pillar of a recent deal – between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad – that brings funds back to the empty coffers of the Kurdish government.
If ISIL sweeps over Kirkuk, it will further threaten the core of the Kurdish heartland as it will come closer to the major cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Analysts say the group is desperate for such victory to uphold its narrative of expansion and invincibility as it has suffered major blows in recent weeks in northern and central Iraq as well as in the town of Kobane in northern Syria.
The Peshmerga have wrested large areas of territory from ISIL in Nineveh province and are now in close vicinity of Mosul, ISIL’s stronghold in Iraq.
A tour through parts of Kirkuk province reveals the precariousness of the situation. ISIL forces are just a few hundred metres away from the highway that links Kirkuk to Baghdad.
The only things separating them from the road are Peshmerga outposts and trenches.
On the eastern side of the road, red, green and black banners are flying over the barracks of the popular mobilisation forces, mainly Shia armed groups, that have positioned themselves in the area in recent months as there is a significant Shia population and a number of holy sites in the area.
In the southern part of Kirkuk province between the towns of Daquq and Touz Khormatu, the front lines have been more stable in recent months.
The Peshmerga now boast better weapons all over the front lines, but are quick to point out they are in dire need of heavy weaponry.
A key factor in their recent successes, they said, has been the anti-armour weapons and rockets, in particular the German-supplied Milan weapons.
Such weapons are the Kurds’ best hope in confronting a lethal ISIL weapon of choice.
“The major problem is their armoured suicide car bombers and planted bombs,” said Saeed, who has been a fighter in the Peshmerga ranks since 1983 when he first joined to battle the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
Fighting ISIL across a frontier of over 1,000km means Kurdish forces’ abilities are stretched thin.
According to figures released by the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga, almost 1,000 Peshmergas have died and around 5,000 have been injured in the fight against ISIL so far.
During the recent fight, many of the Peshmerga did not have the newer rifles which were kept in storage and had to fight with the old weapons.
Peshmerga and Kurdish political officials said the amount of foreign military assistance has been inadequate and that has affected the Peshmerga’s ability to sustain its gains.
Many wonder without coalition air strikes how the Peshmerga would have fared in the face of the existential threat that ISIL poses to Kurdish areas.
In one case, a unit of around 700 troops in Kirkuk had been given slightly more than 150 rifles. The rest mostly use old and under-performing Russian AK-47 guns that they have had to purchase in the black market.
“During the recent fight, many of the Peshmerga did not have the newer rifles which were kept in storage and had to fight with the old weapons,” complained one officer who did not want to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Some of the Peshmerga say they are given no more than 6 to 60 bullets during military operations that often last for hours.
At Maktab Khalid, a group of Peshmergas have gathered to discuss the situation. They know well that their recent successes are not totally secure and that ISIL is a force that has demonstrated a surprising level of resilience.
“We are now adapting to their changing tactics,” said Hawre Twana, a Peshmerga fighter. “Our morale is high.”
As the dark sank in, more and more Peshmerga soldiers positioned themselves near the canal in anticipation of another unpredictable night.