Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) attacked the Kurdish town of Basheer on Tuesday (17 June), in an action that indicates a push by the jihadist group to gain ground in an oil-rich area just south of Kirkuk.
Kurdish soldiers promised to fight hard, and vowed they would beat the jihadists who routed the Iraqi army last week.
Officials from the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, said at least three of their soldiers had died in the fight for Basheer, which began when Isis militants entered the town in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
A top official at a peshmerga base in Daquq, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk about the situation, said dozens of his soldiers had left the base to fight Isis in Basheer just a few miles away.
'They were Shias, so Isis just came to kill all of them'
The attack on Basheer came just a day after three car bombs exploded in Kirkuk, a major city that Kurdish fighters occupied just last week. The two events indicate that Isis has not given up its efforts to gain ground in the north, despite its simultaneous success in making its way south toward Baghdad.
The attack on Basheer was the first time Isis had infiltrated a town in Iraqi Kurdistan since it entered the capital to fight the Iraqi army. The peshmerga staved off Isis advances over the past week, but the militant group is back now with a renewed vengeance.
"Basheer is mostly all Shia. So Isis just came to kill all of them," the official said of the Sunni group.
Armored personnel carriers filled with peshmerga soldiers raced down the main road leading south from Kirkuk to Basheer on Tuesday morning, followed by ambulances. Extra security officials surrounded the checkpoints leading from Kirkuk to Daquq, stopping cars randomly to inspect them.
The 600 peshmerga soldiers in Daquq took over the base last week from the Iraqi military. They are now using the armored vehicles and weapons left behind by the fleeing forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to fight Isis. These include heavy weaponry such as Katyusha rocket launchers, as well as rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
'Isis might be able to beat Maliki, but they can't beat us'
"For a long time we have wanted to take back this base. When we came here, we did not need to fight the military. They just left because they did not want to fight Isis. They would rather we did," the Kurdish official from Daquq said.
"Isis might be able to beat Maliki, but they can't beat us. Maliki's soldiers fight for money, not for their country."
Officials at the base said they rely on local villagers to the west to inform them of Isis movements in the area. This time, though, they received no warning of the Isis attack.
The official in Daquq said he sends soldiers every six hours to patrol the area, including villages between Tuz Khurma and the Tikrit "border" crossing. (The border being the front between Isis and Kurdish-controlled areas.) He said the men have also set up snipers at the line to watch for Isis intruders.
Yet the peshmerga said they fear Isis could infiltrate the area unexpectedly, taking advantage of local collaboration. Some Sunni families have taken up arms, the Kurdish fighters said, but it is not clear who has pledged allegiance to the militant group.
There are approximately 1,500 peshmerga soldiers in and around Kirkuk, militia members said. Most of them patrol the city and man the checkpoints; others, like those at the base in Daquq, are preparing to confront Isis on the front lines.
"We will defend this area until we die," a commander at the base in Kirkuk said Tuesday. "We have the soul needed to defend our land. I don't think Isis can beat us."