greetings from the front line: jalawla

like a spearhead into the isil territory the kurdish front line reaches towards the city of jalawla. historically a kurdish city, it is, together with saadi, the last southern tip of kurdish populated ‘disputed’ area to the south that is still in the hands of the islamic state. and while this front line has seen a lot of fighting, it has not seen a lot of support.

driving towards the last tip of the spearhead, the road leads along a wide streched front shared with the islamic state. while itself not the center of attention to attacks, the islamic state is just one road down across the dusty field. i find myself checking the flags on the side of the road. an iraqi flag already makes me nervous. are we still in kurdish controlled territory? my driver is confident. he is a peshmerga. he drives this road every other week when he spends another ten days on the frontline with his father, the leader of ‘balak’. balak is a unit within the division 70. officially part of the iraqi army, the kurdish peshmerga have been split along the party line of the kurdish democratic party kdp and the patriotic union of kurdistan puk into the divisions 80 (kdp) and 70 (puk), and they are hence the closest one can still refer to as a ‘party militia’. that fact is not just visible in the lack of uniforms but also in the very family based atmosphere on the front line. everybody knows each other. 200 people. and they all share one thing in common – they live on the very edge with the islamic state.

as we walk along the dusty hills and sand dunes, provisional strongholds that one might judge to be too vastly spread to actually hold the designed terriory, shots sound through the silence. the fire has started. being at a spearhead positioning, it is hard to tell whether the shooting comes from
the left or the right and where exactly they are firing at. ‘this is not dangerous fire’ i am told by the commander. but with the comment ‘even a non dangerous bullet kills‘ i turn the crowd around and start taking some shelter between the sandy dunes.

hovering there, i wonder, why this front line, being such a vulnerable spot, has only seen 200 badly equiped fighters. some of them are young boys, others are old men. their leader is a peshmerga since the age of 13. he has fought all his life. and he agrees, the support out here on this line is weak. they went into battle on june 10; they took khanakin and secured the kurdish areas. but now in jalawla they got stuck. and left alone.
the stories i get told only enforce this perception: on july 24th, the group balak in combination with another 70 division, stormed into jalawla and managed to take the city entirely. yet having fought for more than 12 hours non stop the troops were tired and expecting to be replaced by unified peshmerga divisions. these division never showed and therefore forced the peshmerga to retreat as they were not capable of holding the position.
while this being only one side of the story, the general feeling arises that while there is a strong hold on khanakin, there is less of a support when pinching towards jalawla and saadi.

different theories are around trying to explain the weak support for this front line. they range from complaints about the ministry, held by gorran, being in stronger support of the kdp territory, to speculations about deals with the islamic state by the kdp or a kdp frustration over the puk being so strong by themselves that they do not want to enforce this picture of success by helping them achieve their goals.
one more hypothesis lies in the consequences these southern territories might have on a future election outcome: being traditionally puk-leaning terrirories, the puk already gained a potential voter increase by the inclusion of several kirkuk territories. and kirkuk is arguably too valuable, even for the kdp, than to leave the territory out of the kurdish regional government of the future just because of the expected voter increase for the opposing party puk. with jalawla however things are different. while also kurdish by historic heritage, the areas south of kharakin are also highly arabized and pose less of a profitable outlook for the krg. it is hence the puk forces 70 by themselves that are left to confront the islamic state in the south of their region. the payment they get from the ministry, the orders they take from the puk, and their fighters they get from volunteers. it is the old peshmerga spirit that stands face to face with the islamic state in jalawla.

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