MULLAH ABDULLAH, Iraq, June 18 (Reuters) - Under a bridge, 40 men from the Iraqi police and Kurdish peshmerga fighters take cover from the sun and the occasional mortar fired from across the river that marks one front in a conflict that threatens to dismember the country.
A Kurdish flag planted on top of a Humvee plundered from the Iraqi army marks the territory the Kurds have gained since the army, under attack by Islamist militants, abandoned its bases 20 kilometres (12 miles) away in Kirkuk last week and peshmerga moved into their positions.
“On this side it’s us, and on the other the insurgents,” said Brigadier General Sarhad Qader, the long-time Kurdish police chief for Kirkuk, as water lapped at the heels of his boots.
“We are protecting the area, and especially this bridge. Their intention is to blow up it up because it’s a strategic route.”
Across the bridge lies the road to Hawija, which the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other Sunni armed groups seized as they conquered Mosul and Tikrit on their march last week through northern Iraq.
As Iraqi soldiers deserted, the peshmerga fighters rushed to take their place in the oil-rich region around Kirkuk, occupying ground they consider the heart of their ethnic homeland and over which they have quarrelled with Baghdad for more than a decade.
The Kurds, who have enjoyed de facto autonomy since the First Gulf War in 1991, now find themselves closer to their long-cherished dream of full independence than ever before, though it could come with the threat of an Islamic caliphate on their doorstep if the ISIL fighters get their way.
“Once the terrorists have more access to many things ... we are really worried about their techniques and tactics, but all the peshmerga, all the security forces in Kurdistan are now creating a barrier between us and them,” said one senior Kurdish official speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We are focused on the safety and security of Kurdistan.”
The ISIL insurgents have set their sights on Baghdad to the south, while the Kurds’ main concern is guarding their region and their new territory.
“We could attack them, but we don’t want to at the moment,” said Sarhad, who has long headed Kirkuk’s local police, but whose primary allegiance is to the Kurdish region in the north. “We’ve hit them a few times and they ran away.”
This Tuesday, Sarhad was wounded fending off an attack by militants on Basheer, a Shi‘ite ethnic Turkmen town 15 km south of Kirkuk in which the peshmerga later intervened. Even though, as the Kurds hoped, ISIL and the other Sunni factions were concentrated on pushing south, the clashes, which caused 5,000 Turkmen to flee, showed how difficult it will be for the Kurds to avoid Iraq’s new perils.
For Sarhad, the army’s retreat a week ago from the key northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk came as a surprise. Earlier in June, he was discussing how to deal with the threat of insurgents with the head of the 46th and 47th army divisions.
“We were sitting here and surveying our area,” said Sarhad, who has a reputation in Kirkuk for fearlessness and has survived more than one assassination attempt. “As police, there is no difference between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army: we work together.”
Since then, Sarhad said some Iraqi soldiers and policemen whose families lived in Hawija and the surrounding areas had returned home and joined the insurgents.
The exact circumstances of their withdrawal are unclear. Kurdish officials say Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki formally requested they take over the army’s bases in Kirkuk, which are located on the city’s southern outskirts.
Within hours, the peshmerga had moved down from the north and taken full control of Kirkuk without firing a shot.
The K1 army base was ransacked by Kurds who made off with everything but the blast walls, which are painted with slogans that now have an ironic ring. “We die and the nation is revived,” reads one of them. Another says: “Iraq first”.
The ease with which the Kurds took over has raised questions among Arab and Turkmen members of the provincial council. Some officials in Baghdad have even accused the Kurds of making a secret pact with ISIL. The governor of Kirkuk, Najmadlin Karim, a Kurd who has won respect from Arabs for his performance in the city, insists the Kurds have not performed a land grab, because they were already present in the city.
But Kurdish officials are unequivocal about the fact they are not about to relinquish Kirkuk or any of the areas they hold.
“We will strengthen our line of defence because the places we are now in - they are areas of the Kurdistan people. They are Kurdish areas,” Peshmerga Minister Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa told Reuters in an interview.
Having fought for decades against former dictator Saddam Hussein, defended the region after the First Gulf War, and helped U.S. Special Forces open a northern front during the 2003 invasion, older Kurds are preparing for one last fight.
The region’s President Masoud Barzani on Wednesday called on retired fighters to re-enlist with the peshmerga.
Forty-five-year-old Farhad Azid Abdallah, a former peshmerga who fought in the 1990s and is now a taxi driver in the Kurdish capital Arbil, said he and many others were prepared to take up arms once again: “I am ready, my rifle is ready.” (Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk and David Sheppard in Arbil; Editing by Ned Parker and Will Waterman)