Nawaran, Iraq – Neshwan Zebari is a finance student at the University of Cihan in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region – but these days, he is not studying.
“My dad was in the Peshmerga, so he got me access to the frontline,” Zebari told Al Jazeera, sporting a black uniform and dark sunglasses and with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “I’m fighting for the freedom of Kurdistan. I’m not worried about my studies … Every Kurd has experience with war.”
Zebari is among a group of volunteers on the Peshmerga’s frontlines near Bashiqa, where they are participating in the Iraqi army-led operation to retake Mosul, the de facto Iraqi capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
As the Peshmerga continued their advance towards Mosul, preceded by coalition air strikes on ISIL positions nearby, clashes kicked off in Bashiqa last Thursday.
“They told me there was a fight, so I decided to come up,” Tayib, a Peshmerga volunteer, told Al Jazeera, holding a sniper rifle. “I bought it myself. There aren’t enough snipers here.”
In Nawaran, the war has left the village abandoned, filled with shot-up buildings and cars. Yet there remains a sense of normality in some areas: In one parking lot, a vendor operates a shawarma stand next to a tub of iced water full of water bottles.
When ISIL snipers fire on the area, the Peshmerga fighters fall back. When given an order, they march forward again, walking with their heads down to keep the clouds of dust out of their eyes and mouths. They stick to established paths, hyper-aware of the threat of ISIL-planted landmines.
Although the Peshmerga are the official military arm of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), there are informal aspects to their operations as well. Near Nawaran, many of the fighters are volunteers, some clad in traditional Kurdish garb rather than official Peshmerga camouflage uniforms.
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Hamza Saleh is one of them. “I came this morning,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’m not afraid. I was at home and had my AK-47.” He stopped speaking as another coalition air strike landed in the near distance.
Saleh’s fellow soldiers are quick to point out that he is a veteran of the Iraqi-Kurdish conflicts of the 1970s, and he commands a degree of respect for this. He uses the same AK-47 that Kurdish fighters used back then, as do some of his fellow fighters.
“So much about war has changed since then,” he reflected.
Others use more modern American and German-made rifles, as well as heavier weapons, including mortars and tanks.
The fighters here appear to be bracing themselves for a long battle, with construction equipment on hand to help build out their frontline bases.
“Winter is coming,” said General Bahram Yasin from a command centre near Bashiqa. “We’re building frontlines.”
The Peshmerga are not fighting here alone. From a base near Bashiqa, Turkey shelled ISIL positions on Sunday. The Turkish base has provided training to Sunni militia fighters, and the Peshmerga say they welcome the assistance: “Anyone against ISIS, we work with,” Yasin said.
The Iraqi army is leading the offensive to retake Mosul, and they alone are planning to enter the city when the time comes. “We don’t want a land war with Iraq after Mosul,” Peshmerga officer Shawn Warti told Al Jazeera.
Also aiding in the battle for Mosul are the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and the international coalition providing air support. In addition, various Christian groups have been working with the Peshmerga north of Mosul.
For Raed Sami, a Peshmerga officer near Bashiqa, the fight is personal.
“I want the operation to liberate Mosul [to succeed]. I have family there,” Sami told Al Jazeera. Shortly after the interview, a loud boom cracked through the air – a suspected ISIL suicide bombing. Minutes later, a mortar fired from ISIL territory flew into the base.
The future of this region may entail escalated disputes between the KRG and Baghdad over who controls certain parts of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is a part. For now, the Peshmerga do not want to give up the land that they control here.
“We protect it,” Warti said, “so it’s ours.”