KHABAT, Iraq: A Kurdish soldier looks through binoculars at the village of Hassan Sham, two miles down this dusty plain, where Islamic State (IS) fighters are massed.
Behind him, the white tents of a refugee camp are empty.
A week ago, those tents sheltered 5,000 people who fled when IS—formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, widely described as “the new al-Qaeda”—seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June.
They hurriedly fled this refuge, some leaving behind their cars, as ISIS advanced on Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, 18 miles away.
American air strikes have slowed IS’s advance, to the relief of outgunned Kurdish troops—called peshmerga, or “those who face death”—manning this 600-mile battle line.
“Not only the air strikes, but the attention of the world, signals to our population . . . that we are not alone,” said Shwan, a source close to a Kurdish military commander. He declined to use his full name.
“We like history, art and life. ISIS hates all that,” he said. “We want democracy, and they want the opposite. We respect human rights and minorities, and ISIS kills them,” he added.
IS is a threat to America, too, he said.
“This is a world war against terrorism. For ISIS, the idea is not just to take over Kurdistan but the region, and then strike the United States and other places around the world . . . You are the world’s target,” he added.
Fighting across northern Iraq has displaced at least 400,000 people, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The flood of refugees, coupled with strained resources, is becoming an almost unmanageable humanitarian crisis, officials here concede.
IS—so brutal in Syria’s civil war that al-Qaeda disowned it—targets Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, massacring villages and beheading or crucifying captives.
Repeatedly displaced Christians swell the streets of Irbil’s Ainkawa section.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis, an ancient Muslim sect that incorporates elements of other religions, fled the northern city of Sinjar and surrounding villages. IS surrounded more than 100,000 of them on a mountaintop, without food or water, until American and Iraqi airplanes dropped supplies and Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey secured an escape route this week.
Several thousand remain stranded, according to Sinjar Mayor Saleh Ahmed.
He said that “50 to 60 . . . old people and children who couldn’t climb up the mountain” are trapped near IS lines. “They are waiting to be evacuated. Yes, they are a small group, but they are humans also,” Ahmed said.
Outgoing Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said IS killed 80 Yazidi men in Kawju, a village 15 miles southwest of Sinjar.
The men refused to convert to Islam, and IS executed them at a school where they had separated the village’s children, women and elderly, Sinjar’s mayor said.
Air strikes helpful
On the battlefield, American air strikes hit IS forces around Mosul’s dam, Iraq’s largest and the source of water and electricity for much of the north; peshmerga are struggling to take it back.
“I think the US military intervention is very, very important for the protection of the only successful area in Iraq, which is the Kurdistan region,” said Alan Attoof, a political analyst in Irbil.
“The most important reason to keep Kurdistan safe is that it has become the haven for . . . Christians and Yazidis, and other minorities and refugees from Syria,” he added.
It has strategic and psychological importance to the United States, he said: Apart from the enormous investment of lives and money in Iraq since 2003, American forces have protected the Kurdish north since the first Gulf War in 1991.
“You have your US Consulate here, and it has become a haven for other diplomats from Baghdad when they evacuated,” Attoof said.
At the front line in Khabat, ISIS and the peshmerga trade artillery and mortar fire. IS captured modern American equipment when six Iraqi army brigades fled Mosul; the Kurds have few heavy arms and ran low on munitions until American resupply flights began last week.
“ISIS is not a local group; it is a regional and international group,” Attoof said. “[They] have militants from all over the world —from the US, the United Kingdom, from Europe, from Chechnya—from everywhere.”
Its ranks include “former commanders in Saddam’s army [who]are very well-trained and know the country inside and out,” said Shwan. “It has a lot of fighting experience here in Iraq and Syria. We are faced with an enemy who has fighting skills, is well-equipped and willing to die,” he added.
Refugees described how the peshmerga quickly withdrew in Sinjar, leaving them defenseless. Kurdish officers said they ran out of ammunition and lacked other essential equipment.
Meanwhile, IS’s victories are producing more volunteers and support elsewhere.
Sympathizers in London distributed IS fliers, and those in Germany attacked Yazidi immigrants; when IS supporters rallied in The Hague, the mayor there canceled a counter-demonstration.
A Canadian was killed while fighting for IS in Iraq, according to media reports; other media tell of European women joining the terror group. On Twitter, a British IS member boasted of holding Yazidi women as slaves.
If IS maintains a base in Syria or Iraq, Attoof said, “of course, it would be so easy for them to export terror anywhere they want in the world.”
Said Shwan: “If ISIS takes Kurdistan, you will have lost the only pillar of democracy in Iraq. ISIS represents a threat to all of us, particularly the United States.”