Mike Giglio reports: The soldier pressed a handkerchief to his face to fight the smell of corpses at his feet. Then he crossed the street, sat on a curb, put his head between his knees, and spit. He lit a cigarette. “I’d rather smell the smoke,” he said, “because the stench is rotten, it’s gross.”
The soldier gazed warily at three young ISIS fighters who lay dead at the foot of a crumbled wall. One was charred from a rocket-propelled grenade. Another had a hole in his head. The jihadis wore thick socks but no shoes, to muffle their steps along the pockmarked streets during the battle that raged there the day before.
The soldier was part of an ethnic Kurdish force called the peshmerga that has spent more than six months battling ISIS in northern Iraq. He and his colleagues won this town south of the Mosul Dam, called Wana, the previous afternoon. They spoke as if they’d been dispatching demons. “They are like animals,” a 30-year-old lieutenant said, “and they don’t have brains to think.”
It was ISIS’s push into Iraq’s Kurdish region that prompted the U.S. to begin airstrikes against the group in August, paving the way for the Obama administration to launch a new war. Two months after taking over the Iraqi city of Mosul, the extremists were threatening genocide against the Yazidi religious minority around Mt. Sinjar and advancing toward the regional capital of Erbil.
The peshmerga have since become the main partner on the ground for the U.S. and its coalition of allies, shouldering the grunt work of combat. More than half of the airstrikes the U.S. has carried out in Iraq, according to the U.S. military command overseeing operations against ISIS, have hit along Kurdish lines. The extent of U.S. cooperation with the Kurds suggests the true percentage is far higher, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst tracking the conflict at the Institute for the Study of War.
Six months into the offensive, soldiers along the peshmerga’s 650-mile front with ISIS show the strain of a grueling war. They fight to protect their land — but also feel they’re doing the dirty work for Western countries that keep far from the smell of death. A major in Sinjar called the peshmerga “the only ones on the front fighting” as soldiers fired over stacks of sandbags; a colonel barricaded across from ISIS in Kirkuk said, “It’s not supposed to be this way.” At a western outpost overlooking ISIS-held Syria, an officer said the Kurds hold the line “for every single country fighting ISIS,” while in Wana, the weary soldiers prepared to clear the three corpses as feral cats began to pick at their flesh. [Continue reading…]