Note: The following is a special guest post from our friend Jürgen Hatzenbichler of

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.


We make our way through an obstacle course of HESCO barriers—mesh-wire baskets filled with stones—and enter an army base. There, we are invited into a paneled room with heavy couches. Brigadier General Aras welcomes us warmly. He and the Peshmerga—Kurdish units and Iraqi army—are responsible for a sizable stretch of the front lines near Kirkuk. When we enter, some local politicians are still in the room. Kirkuk is not part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, the Peshmerga are at the front lines. “We jointly defend the city; we are all in this together and everyone does his part,” the general explains. He studied in Sweden. His wife is working in genetics, he explains. The door opens, and a message is delivered. The face of the officer handing over the report spells bad news…a car bomb went off. The general is unsettled; the enemy managed to strike again. “It’s not easy around here,” he states, as if some kind of apology was in order.

Currently, the front line is stable, according to the general. But there are other issues. Ordnance and supplies are scarce. But his biggest worry: His soldiers only recently got their salary for March. He finds it quite irritating that the public servants in Mosul, which is occupied by Daesh, receive their payment on time. That money might have made its way from the Iraqi treasury directly into the hands of ISIS. Also the “reinforcements” of Shiite militia are referred to as a double-edged sword: There have already been some incidences, one of which left one Kurd dead. And there is a fear that once the Shiite militias have settled in, they will be reluctant to leave. Already they have some patrols in Kirkuk.

But General Aras wants to focus on something else. His quick-reaction force (QRF) is composed solely of Western volunteers who joined the Peshmerga in their fight against Daesh. The door opens and two young men enter. They are obviously neither Iraqis nor Kurds. Three more follow, then a couple more. Greetings are exchanged in English. Most of the 15 men are Americans, predominantly from the U.S. and a couple from Canada. One volunteer is European. Some of them are former U.S. Marines—one has a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) of the U.S. Army pinned to his plate carrier. Another says he has no prior military experience but wants to make a difference.