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The Kurds Are Pushing ISIS Back -- But It's Western Airstrikes That Tip the Balance
By Mohammed A Salih

I had just finished dinner with my wife at home in Irbil when a journalist friend of mine called with a shocking piece of news.

"Are you aware what is going on?" he asked frantically. "People are fleeing Irbil. They are afraid Daish will come here. They are close," he said using the acronym people across the region use to refer to the Islamic State (Isis). I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

In a dramatic turn of events, the forces of Isis had reached the Makhmour and Gwer districts, a mere 45-minute or so drive from my city, Iraqi Kurdistan's capital.

What ensued that night of 7 August in Irbil was an unprecedented sense of panic that I had not seen there since 2003. In the spring of that year, as the US and its allies were preparing to attack Iraq, the vast majority of Irbil residents left their homes for the supposed safety of faraway mountains on the Iranian border. They feared Saddam Hussein might again use deadly gas against them.

While the news of Isis's advance scared some into feeling, it prompted many civilian volunteers to pick up arms and go to the frontline to boost the peshmerga. Kurdistan is a land in love with guns and most families have at least one.

For a couple of days the situation in northern Iraq was extremely intense. Peshmerga forces retreated from town after town in the historic Nineveh plains. Overwhelmed by Isis's lightening strikes on several fronts, and having suffered a severe defeat in the Sinjar area in western Nineveh, the peshmerga commanders claimed that the latest retreats were a tactical move to regroup and re-establish themselves in defensible positions mostly on the tops of mountains and hills. The residents of the Nineveh plains, who are mostly members of minority religious communities such as Yazidis, Christians and Shabaks, evacuated their homes alongside the peshmerga. In Sinjar, thousands of unlucky Yazidis fell victim to Isis's brutality.

Then came the US air strikes. In a matter of days the tide of the conflict began to turn in the Kurds' favour. Kurdish forces first pushed Isis jihadists from Makhmour and Gwer and have ever since slowly but steadily retaken some lost territory in the Nineveh plains and other parts of northern Iraq.

Many have cast doubt on the effectiveness of air strikes or the wisdom of providing military aid to peshmerga forces in such a volatile region. As a journalist visiting the frontline in several areas in Kurdistan, I have seen time and again Kurdish troops expressing gratitude for the air support and aid in the form of heavy weaponry and ammunition.

As Kurdish fighters explain, without western air and military support they would be at a serious disadvantage vis-a-vis Isis. They would have to fight a ferociously ideological enemy armed with sophisticated and superior American weapons taken from the Iraqi army. Without such assistance the peshmerga might have been able to resist for some time, but would have a hard time stopping or rolling back the jihadists. And, quite possibly, a humanitarian disaster would have unfolded as hundreds of thousands of Kurds would have fled homes.

Wars are very divisive. The question of who was right and who was wrong in a certain conflict can go on forever.

But to the people in Kurdistan, the war against Isis is one where there should be little room for doubt or hesitation. Isis's atrocities and exclusionary ideology speak to the nature of the group. It's a force that sees the world in frighteningly black and white terms. It proudly produces HD-quality propaganda videos where prisoners of war and civilians are mercilessly slaughtered and cultural heritage of the Mesopotamia region, as old as history itself, is destroyed with a sense of duty.

The Kurds have many flaws of their own, but the fight against Isis is a fight for civilisation in this region and security for the broader world. In their propaganda products, Isis militants lash out at non-conforming Muslims and non-Muslims. They also make no secret of their hatred of the west, or "Rum" as they like to call it, and their burning desire to wreak havoc there as well.

The streets of Irbil are now bustling with activity again. People stay out into the late hours of night. Those who fled have come back and a sense of normality has to a great extent returned.

Regardless of background or affiliations, people here believe western military and humanitarian support for Kurdistan regional government should continue for as long as Isis can be uprooted in Iraq.

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