WADI OSAJ, Iraq: Briyar Kamal, a Kurdish student, achieved good marks at university, but instead of relaxing during his summer holiday he is fighting jihadists who have overrun swaths of Iraq.
“If the nation needs me here, I will continue to fight. Only when the situation improves will I return to class,” says Kamal, 24, who is deployed with Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting to retake the town of Jalawla from the jihadist group ISIS.
Kamal says he got “very good grades” in his third year at Sulaimaniyah University and only has a year to go to finish his degree in economics.
But “fighting ISIS is more important,” says the young man, who is armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and previously received weapons training at a military academy.
“I can study any time, but by fighting ISIS, I am helping secure freedom and security” for Iraq’s Kurds.
Kamal is from the town of Halabja, which was hit in 1988 with chemical weapons during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign, killing an estimated 5,000 people.
“The day has come for us to obtain our rights,” Kamal says in Wadi Osaj, an eerily empty village near Jalawla.
The ISIS-led offensive launched in June was a major moment for Iraq’s Kurds, forcing federal troops to flee and clearing the way for Kurdish forces to take control of disputed territory they have long wanted to incorporate into their autonomous region, over Baghdad’s strong objections.
But ISIS fighters have since turned their attentions to the Kurds, threatening their regional capital Irbil itself, which sparked a campaign of American airstrikes.
Resting a few hundred meters from the front line, Kamal says he only gets three to four hours of sleep a night. “But our food is great,” he says, sharing a watermelon with other fighters.
Peshmerga Lt. Col. Mubarak Ali says more than 1,000 Kurdish troops are deployed around Jalawla.
Ali, in his 40s, says his fighters are armed with rifles, light and heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortars. “We have received some new weapons from the peshmerga ministry, and more are on their way,” he says.
Fighting mainly takes place at night, although there is some sniper and mortar fire during the day.
At a peshmerga hilltop position nearby, 25-year-old fighter Saif Abdel-Rahman says one area of Jalawla, Hay al-Shuhada, never fell from peshmerga hands.
“The fighting there rages 24/7,” Abdel-Rahman says, adding that the peshmerga offensive in the Jalawla area launched this week is going well.
“Our morale is very high.”
According to Captain Shakhawan Omar,who is deployed at a crossroads leading to Jalawla, a key reason why the peshmerga are managing to turn the tide is that they have “learned [ISIS’] tactics.”
But explosives left by retreating jihadists are a major danger. Shirko Merwais, a Kurdish political party official in Khanaqin, says seven fighters were killed by blasts in the area Sunday and Monday.
In Wadi Osaj, Ali, whose fighters come from all over Iraq’s Kurdish areas, studies a map as he and his troops drink ice-cold water.
ISIS fighters withdrew from Wadi Osaj after a two-hour exchange of heavy fire, he says.
“We captured two of their corpses,” Ali says, adding they were probably Iraqi.
“I doubt they can try to launch a new offensive, but they do try to sabotage our advance,” he says, adding that ISIS blew up a bridge as they withdrew from villages around Jalawla into the town itself.
“That has just delayed our advance a little.”