Note: The following is a special guest post from our friend Jürgen Hatzenbichler of spartanat.com.
A 30-minute drive toward Mosul. That is all it takes to get from Erbil to the front lines of the war with the Islamic State, referred to by locals as “Daesh.” The Kurdish city, home to millions, seems calm and peaceful. For the new arrivals, the scenery might be deceiving. No extraordinary security measures and relaxed guards. Well, except for those Western arrivals after midnight, athletically built, and crossing the airport hall carrying long Pelican cases. And except for the passing of Blackhawk helicopters, departing from a base close to the airport to carry out their mission. But certainly no boots on the ground, at least not when you ask our politicians.
We accompanied a private security company (PSC) on their job in northern Iraq. With the guys from Trans Atlantic Viking Security (TAV), we made our way through the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Our destination: the front line in the fight against ISIS/ISIL. Our route: from Erbil to Kirkuk, and from there, a bit southward to the headquarters of an Iraqi general. Outside of Erbil, anything goes. We make our way using armored SUVs. Our escort is armed, and everyone got a briefing before we rolled. It’s not unusual for vehicles to take small-arms fire. Encountering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is also possibility. We are spared that experience, but the conversation between the team leader and the driver is telling: “Isn’t that the place we got hit the last time? Fortunately only a small charge, which only took out a tire and fender.”
On our way to Kirkuk, we pass through several checkpoints, where we, easily identifiable as Westerners, get waved through quickly. The landscape changes. Slowly, the hills are replaced with arid plains. It takes us 45 minutes to get to Kirkuk. Looking at the map, we expected a longer ride. Going through the city, one can observe several patrols roaming the streets. Before the city limits there are several compounds lining the road, but most of them look like they might be left from the time when coalition forces were here. After Kirkuk, Daesh comes dangerously close to the motorway. The defensive positions of the Kurdish fighters are easily recognizable from the car. Sometimes a small hill with a bunker on top, other times an earthen wall resembling a semi-trench. “Where you see the smoke rising over there, that’s ISIS territory,” the driver tells us.