“How are the skies?” a gruff voice asks in Iraqi Arabic dialect. “The skies are clear,” is the reply, after a crackle of static on the walkie-talkie through which a Kurdish major is listening to the conversation between two Islamic State (IS) militants on the other side of this front line, southwest of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq.
An irrigation canal no wider than 10 meters (33 feet) separates the lightly armed Kurdish peshmerga forces from the extremist militants in Mula Abdula, where Maj. Aziz Ahmad stands behind a defensive berm, holding the walkie-talkie up to intercept the enemy’s communications.
“They change the frequency regularly and it is not easy to intercept,” he told Al-Monitor. “IS is terrified of bomber aircraft, especially the French.”
With the help of coalition airstrikes, Kurdish forces have reclaimed most of the area they lost to IS in August 2014, driving the militants out of 15,000 square km (9,300 square miles) they consider historically their own. But the peshmerga forces have neither the will nor the means to advance much further into Sunni Arab areas.
The front line at Mula Abdula, 25 km (15.5 miles) southwest of Kirkuk, has not moved since June 2014, when the militants overran Mosul and other Sunni-majority areas including Hawija 35 km (22 miles) away.
“Why should we shed Kurdish blood for Hawija when we know the Iraqi government will claim it back once the IS threat is gone?” responded Capt. Rebwar Mala Ali when Al-Monitor asked whether there were any plans to cross the canal and attack IS on its own turf.
The Kurds’ reluctance to move forward and desire to avoid inflaming sectarianism by deploying Shiite militia forces to those areas means IS has not been dislodged from any of Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Efforts to reconstitute the several army divisions that collapsed last summer are proceeding slowly, and the “spring offensive” touted by some Iraqi and US officials to retake Mosul seems increasingly unlikely.