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Near KIRKUK, Iraq — The commander is proud of his fighters and of the ground they've taken from ISIS. He points across a huge new front line in northern Iraq and says "this was all ISIS territory and now it's ours; Peshmerga."
The name Peshmerga means "those who are ready to die," and Commander Kamal Kirkuki certainly is. He already has 11 bullets in his body from fighting Saddam Hussein's army. Now he is encountering a different Sunni Arab enemy, the Islamists of ISIS. In the last two weeks, his Kurdish troops have taken ground ISIS held for nine months — more than 70 square miles since they began to roll back ISIS' seemingly relentless advance.
From the windswept hilltop where he proudly shows his new land, he shows the way in his heavily armored Toyota Land Cruiser to a village where his fighters drove out ISIS.
In the yard of a house are dozens of IED's, laid out neatly, their detonator cords snipped. ISIS bomb makers had prepared them for the advancing Kurdish fighters. Alongside the IED's are tons of TNT explosives. The Kurds found them in several houses which ISIS used as bomb factories.
The militants are skilled at making them; Iraqis have been perfecting their skills at roadside bomb making for more than a decade. There were plenty to be seen by the road, too. On one 50-yard stretch, seven holes where roadside bombs had been planted by ISIS and removed by the Kurds were evident.
ISIS detonated many as they retreated, blowing up houses and bridges. They laced other homes with booby traps and fields with trip wires. They wanted to kill as many of the Kurds who were chasing them as possible.
Kirkuki drives across a long front line, past Kurdish Humvees which have had every window smashed by ISIS sniper fire. The accurate fire suggests an enemy that is well trained.
The commander says the ISIS fighters aren't just Iraqi; they come from a rainbow of countries; "Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, England, Chechnya." They identified a British ISIS fighter who was operating a drone with a camera attached. He would fly the drone near the Kurdish positions. They tried to shoot down the drone on several occasions but failed. Until the day they targeted the British pilot and, they say, shot him dead.
"They are cunning and dirty fighters"
They say they have taken around 200 ISIS prisoners and killed many more on the battlefield. They concede they have lost a lot of their own fighters, 10 trying to take one tiny village nearby. "About 1,000 Peshmerga have been killed by ISIS since this war started and 5,000 injured. But we are building our independence now," says Kirkuki.
He leads the way past a huge new defensive line of piled earth, beyond it the flames and smoke of a burning oil installation ISIS blew up in retreat. It is a desolate landscape of rolling hills and gulleys; in the far distance, a black ISIS flag flutters in the wind that whips across their "caliphate." The commander has it in his sights — "we will take it, don't worry."
Further south is the distant sound of gunfire and mortars as Kurdish fighters advance on the village of Bayshir where ISIS fighters are holding out; trying to resist the onslaught.
The commander says ISIS suicide bombers drove armored vehicles at his men twice in recent weeks. He takes out his phone and shows photos of what ISIS are capable of; a tunnel dug 150 yards towards his lines, discovered before it could be filled with explosives; an armored vehicle with room for 18 men, the lower third filled with explosives. It was both an armored personnel carrier and a huge bomb on wheels.
"They are cunning and dirty fighters," Kirkuki says.
He is confident that in the coming weeks, Kurdish fighters will take more ground from ISIS, as Iraqi troops and militias try to push the militants out of Tikrit, further south. ISIS is being squeezed on two fronts. The momentum of their stunning advance of last year is being reversed.
The commander looks forward to the day they are driven from Kurdish lands for good. Then he can get back to politics; he used to be the Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament and, like all Kurds here, his ultimate goal is independence for Kurdistan. In the battle with ISIS, it is a golden opportunity he and his men are eager to seize.