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Kurdish fighters are on the front lines in the conflict against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, fighting alongside Iraqi forces. But will this fight bring the Kurds closer to independence, something they have sought in several countries for decades? NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay has the story, the first of two reports from Iraq.
This is Erbil — the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan — an oasis of stability in the Middle East. It's a semi-autonomous region in the northern part of Iraq.
Even after the 2003 U.S. invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein, when the rest of Iraq was in turmoil for years, Iraqi Kurdistan remained safe and prosperous. Today, life here seems peaceful.
But war is less than 50 miles away on the road to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which ISIS took over more than two years ago.
Just inside Mosul's city limits, in a neighborhood called Gogali, Iraqi forces are leading the fight to take the city back, and Kurdish military units known as "the peshmerga" are backing them up. The Iraqis acknowledge they could not attempt this fight without the help of the Kurds.
Baraq Mokdad is with Iraqi Special Forces. His unit had set up a blockade to keep ISIS known in Arabic as Deash, from breaking through the front line.
So this morning, he's saying, Daesh sent a humvee packed with explosives that blew up right here on the other side of this blockade.
And his soldiers with a 50 caliber machine gun, they were able to stop him.
You can hear those 50 caliber machine guns right now in the background.
You can actually see the remains of one ISIS fighter who was involved in that attempted breach of this blockade right here. He's clearly been covered up by the debris.
As we explored the front line, we found more evidence of ISIS's battle strategy, using trucks reinforced with armour plating as battering rams. And in this abandoned warehouse, mass producing Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs. The evidence was strewn around the floor.
It's a brutal fight the Kurds are especially anxious to win…fighting not only to stop ISIS but for greater legitimacy on the world stage in their struggle toward establishing greater independence from Iraq.
I think this is a historical moment for us as Kurds.
Nilufer Koc is co-chair of the Kurdistan National Congress, a group representing the often competing interests of Kurds throughout the Middle East. She says there's a good reason why Iraqi Kurds stood up to ISIS from the beginning.
The patriotism to defend the country was the main reason, and I think that the global powers have seen the strength of Kurds and the continuity of Kurds defending, insisting on the defense of their country. That's why Kurds became partners of the international coalition.
The Kurds have made so many gains during the last several weeks in the assault on Mosul, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has publicly asked the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, Masoud Barzani, not to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Mosul to pursue Kurdish territorial ambitions. Al-Abadi says the aim of the battle for Mosul should only be freeing the citizens from ISIS.
COLONEL BRETT SYLVIA:
The United States military agrees. Colonel Brett Sylvia is commander of the second brigade of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Kentucky He says it's a balancing act between former rivals, but it's working. You've got the peshmerga camp, you got the Kurdish flag flying there. And when you look on the other side of that wall, you got the Iraqi camp with the Iraqis flying their flags. And so really it could kind of symbolic of what we're doing here. We're advising each one of these guys, and they are working together, we're working with them in order to bring this whole thing together.
His troops are in Northern Iraq to provide advice and assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi army during the assault on Mosul. They're part of the five thousand American troops still deployed in Iraq. COLONEL BRETT SYLVIA: The peshmerga have played a very helpful role in this Mosul counterattack. They had formed a Kurdish defensive line that they manned, that they maintained, that they defended. In cooperation with Iraqi security forces, they did push forward from that line in order to be able to support the offensive, all in agreement with the Iraqi government. And it is my understanding that once the offensive is over, then the Kurdish security forces will move back to that original defensive line.
That's the deal that they made?
But some peshmerga on the front lines, like Colonel Arshad Galaly, seem to think the Kurds have a right to expand their territory and that Kurdish "independence" should be their eventual goal.
So what happens next after ISIS is expelled from Mosul?
We want our independence.
Do you get that militarily, politically?
We've been fighting, making great sacrifices for a century. We've already earned it.
It's a sensitive question. He insists Kurdistan should be independent, but he won't say how.
But other Kurds are more candid, like Najmaldin Karim, the governor of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Officially, it's outside the borders of Kurdistan. But two years ago, when the Iraqi army fled as ISIS approached, the Kurds came to the city's defense, and they've been in charge ever since.
GOVERNOR NAJMALDIN KARIM:
The Kurds have proven they can govern themselves. We have proven that we can defend ourselves. We have every right like any other nation to be independent. We have to work on this with the government in Baghdad and talk to them openly. We want to be good neighbors. We need each other. We have to talk to the neighboring countries — Turkey, Iran, even Syria when there is a decent government there. I think the time is overdue.
But the time for what? For a state? For a Kurdish state?
Yes, for an independent Kurdistan.
If that day comes, this 12-foot-tall concrete wall in the Kirkuk Province could become the new border. The Peshmerga built it to keep ISIS out. It extends 30 miles beyond the official borders of Kurdistan, becoming a de facto dividing line between their growing territory, and the rest of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Kurdistan is playing another important role in the ongoing conflict, hosting more than a million refugees, most of them Arab Iraqis, like Hussein Fathel and his family.
My hometown could wind up in Kurdistan once the borders are redrawn, But it makes no difference, so long as I can raise my family and sheep in peace.
As the Mosul offensive grinds on, Kurdistan is bracing for up to one million additional refugees. That's straining resources in a region giving its all in the fight against ISIS.
We have to feed them, we have to shelter them, we have to protect them.
The U.S. has stepped in recently to help fund the Kurdish military and other crisis measures related to the battle with ISIS.
So who are these other people?
While she's hopeful about the future, Kurdistan National Congress co-chair Nilufer Koc is warning her fellow countrymen not to go too far when it comes to independence. Iraqi Kurds she says, need to tread very carefully. Politically more and more people are understanding that insisting on a nation state of Kurdistan would be catastrophic for the region. So what can be done, I think it's a good time to get more rights through dialogue with Baghdad. The Kurdish dream of being more free is possible.
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