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Richard Engel Reports From Front Line in War on ISIS in Iraq

Two weeks after Kurdish forces in northern Iraq launched wintertime offensive against ISIS, the Peshmerga fighters are holding their ground

NEAR THE MOSUL LAKE DAM, Iraq — The Kurdish commander raised his radio to his ear.

He could hear the ISIS fighters stationed some distance away. Monitoring their frequency, he knew what was coming.

“We’re going to get attacked,” he announced.

Minutes later, a mortar landed with a thud on a nearby hilltop, a few hundred yards away from the small outpost here.

From a high spot, Kurdish fighters stood and gazed at the smoke rising across the valley. The mortar had flown overhead, overshooting the outpost.

Within minutes another mortar follows, then another. In all five mortars land nearby but the Kurdish fighters don’t bother to take cover. The commander says the mortars come every few hours.

This is the front line of the battle against ISIS.

Two weeks after Kurdish forces in northern Iraq launched wintertime offensive against ISIS, the fighters of the Peshmerga, the military force of the Kurdish Regional Government, are holding their ground — dug in along a handful of outposts near a key junction of a major highway.

"We are fighting against everyone's enemy"

The Kurds used explosives to take out a chunk of this road, which was once the main ISIS supply route here.

Now, sitting atop the high ground, the Kurds hope to stop the flow of ISIS fighters and supplies from Syria into Iraq.

But these outposts are located perilously deep inside ISIS-controlled areas, just west of the city of Mosul, which ISIS regards as its capital in Iraq.

Every few minutes, the Kurds fire a heavy gun down the valley, into an abandoned village where ISIS fighters are based.

The gun, sitting on a turret beneath a wood canopy, is only one of two such guns here.

There isn’t much to this outpost, despite its strategic value. Sandbags are piled along the perimeter, high enough to shield the soldiers behind it from sight.

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Elsewhere, the perimeter is lined by a dirt berm. Construction is ongoing — a crane lifts concrete pillbox houses into place, which will offer the fighters better cover. The Kurds say they lost three fighters here last week, when ISIS sent a wave of fighters at the outpost.

But what the Kurdish fighters lack in equipment, they make up for in fighting spirit. After ISIS swept violently into Iraq in June, the Kurds regrouped and have managed to take back much of the ground they lost. The men here say they are fighting for their homeland and for their families.

“We will stand here and fight for as long as we have to,” Capt. Massud Aziz Osman said. “We are fighting against everyone’s enemy.”

Like many here, Osman, a father of four, says that the Kurds have been left to fight alone, abandoned by the Iraqi army and offered only limited support by the U.S. and its allies.

“ISIS is the common enemy,” he says, “and anyone who isn’t here fighting them is without a god or a faith.”

But Kurdish officials say determination alone may not be enough to see this battle through. They have recently become more vocal — calling for increased aid from the international coalition.

They are careful to acknowledge the crucial role that U.S. and coalition airstrikes have played in their recent battlefield successes, but say that without more advanced weapons and a regular supply of ammunition they will not be able to hold their ground, much less push ISIS back further.

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Back at the outpost, Kurdish fighters scan the horizon looking for approaching car bombs. On the junction itself, a shell of a truck, armored with sheets of steel and loaded with sacks of fertilizer, still blocks the road. It’s one of the 20 or so car bombs ISIS has launched at this outpost so far.

The body of its driver, the would-be suicide bomber, lies in a ditch nearby. The Kurds say they stopped the car with an RPG round before it could reach their position.

The handful of fighters here are confident they can defend their ground against the next car bomb or the next wave of ISIS fighters.

But, they say, whether the Kurds can win the wider war against ISIS in northern Iraq may depend on their leaders’ ability to convince Washington to send them more — and bigger — weapons.