It’s early morning in Erbil, Iraq, and the streets are thronging with traffic. The cloud is low meaning there will be fighting at the front line, the lack of US air support leaving the Kurdish Peshmerga vulnerable to ISIL attacks. Yet on the streets exists a different reality.
Slowly confidence is building in the Iraqi Kurdish capital that the city is safe, following a number of bomb attacks on government buildings and foreign embassies earlier this year.
In the taxi from the airport to our hotel the chatty cab driver with broken English told me that a large offensive was planned for next month, in which the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga with US fighter jets covering from above would push into Mosul and relieve it from the sceptre of ISIL’s black flag. In the meantime Erbil’s vibrancy has returned. Last night the citadel was packed with locals who were eating, drinking and socializing, and security is light.
The push into Mosul couldn’t come sooner. Less than an hour’s drive from Erbil, Mosul was seized by Islamic State fighters on 10th June as part of their northern offensive from Syria. Over 500,000 civilians fled, many to Kurdistan, and the country is feeling the pressure. Property prices in the capital have increased, and overcrowding is rife. My taxi driver friend was pleased about the boost to the economy but expressed worries that extremist elements would be among the refugees, and he clearly isn’t alone with such concerns.
Recently we met Ferhan, a Peshmerga commander from sector 7.2, the section of frontline closest to Mosul. He showed us a video filmed on his mobile phone in which ISIL fighters were clearly visible, zoomed in close on his small camera, digging defensive trenches in preparation for the impending coalition attack.
Ferhan was worried for his men, and with good cause. An estimated 1500 Kurdish soldiers have been killed since ISIL attacked Iraq in summer last year, and more than 7000 are wounded.
For Kurdistan’s fiercely nationalistic civilian population life is improving. However, the streets are lively, the economy is slowly improving after budget cuts from Baghdad, and winter is approaching. My friend from the taxi will be especially pleased about this last factor; summer and autumn are too hot he complained. Plus as a Chelsea fan he must be itching to see this season end, and a fresh one begin.
- Adam is currently in Iraq, working on a documentary