LHEYBAN, Iraq (AP). While the excavator was digging land to build trenches, Iraqi soldiers scanned vast agricultural land in search of militants; nearby, their Kurdish colleagues did the same.
The scene, which took place earlier this month in the small farming village of Leiban in northern Iraq, was a rare example of coordination between the federal government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Both sides strengthened their joint position to protect the village from Islamic State attacks.
Despite a long-standing territorial dispute, Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds are taking steps to work together to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State.
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Whether the fragile security partnership will hold up is a big test in the next chapter of Iraq’s war with IS. Both sides say they need Americans to keep them together – and they say this is one of the reasons the US military presence in Iraq continues, even though its combat mission officially ends on December 31.
Four years ago this month, Iraq announced the defeat of IS. But the rivalry between Baghdad and the Kurds has opened the rifts through which ISIS crept back: a long contested zone stretching across four provinces – Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salaheddin and Diyala – where neither side’s forces entered. In some places, the zone was up to 40 kilometers (24 mi) wide.
Lheiban is located in one part of the zone, and a recent wave of IS attacks threatens to devastate the area from its mostly Kurdish residents. Thus, for the first time since 2014, Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga are establishing joint focal points around the zone to better control the gaps.
“Daesh took advantage of this advantage,” said Captain Naqib Hajar, head of the Kurdish Peshmerga operation in the area, using the Arabic acronym IS IS. Now, he said, “we are coordinating … It all starts here in this village.”
Like all the inhabitants of Leiban, Helm Zahir was tired. In past months, a cement plant worker spent the night on the roof of his humble home, his wife and children sleeping inside, holding a rifle and waiting.
Security personnel guarding a nearby oil company – the only one in the area with a night vision thermal imager – were sending a signal when they spotted IS militants descending from the Karachok mountain range towards Lheiban.
Zahir and other armed residents had to fight them off.
“We were abandoned. The Peshmerga was on one side, the Iraqi army was on the other, and no one intervened, ”he said.
The recent spike in attacks on the village, three of which in the first week of December alone, prompted many villagers, mostly Kurds, to leave. Zahir moved his family to Debagu in relative safety in the Kurdish-controlled north.
In Lheiban, where there were once 65 families, there are only 12 left, said village mukhtar Yadgar Karim.
On December 7, the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces entered the village with plans to repeat coordination elsewhere in the disputed territories. Kurdish authorities hoped this would encourage residents to return. Keeping the Kurdish population in the area is key to their territorial claims.
Zahir was not convinced. “I only came to check the situation, I am very afraid to return,” he said.
The Peshmerga has positions all over the Karachok ridge. But they have no orders to stop IS fighters when they cross borders, or raid IS positions out of caution when entering disputed territory, Colonel Kahar Jowhar explained.
Moreover, the fighters move at night using tunnels and hide in caves, while the peshmerga lack key equipment, including night vision.
“This is why IS can terrorize residents because we don’t see them,” Jowhar said.
Talks to re-establish a joint focal point between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga began more than two years ago but fell apart due to deep mistrust and disagreement over how to establish lines of control.
Under current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, negotiations have resumed, paving the way for an agreement to establish six joint focal points in Baghdad, Erbil and throughout the disputed zone.
Kadhimi also agreed to establish two joint brigades to carry out operations against IS. But for now, the budget is expected to be approved by Baghdad’s finance ministry, said Hajar Ismail, the Peshmerga’s head of coalition relations.
From 2009 to 2014, Iraqi and Kurdish forces provided joint security in the northern provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. But the collapse of the Iraqi army during an IS attack in 2014 ended the deal.
The Kurdish authorities have been able to consolidate control over Kirkuk and other disputed territories during this time, even by developing oil fields and pursuing an independent export policy, which has angered the federal government.
After Iraq announced victory over IS in 2017, Baghdad turned its attention to these areas by launching a military operation in October 2017 to reclaim them. Relations soured: Baghdad cut off budget allocations to the Kurdish region, making it impossible for the Kurdish region to pay public sector workers and debts to oil companies.
Baghdad has long been reluctant to reopen security talks, in part due to political optics in the capital, as many dominant Shiite parties deeply distrusted Kurdish intentions, federal officials said.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, composed mainly of Shiite militias close to Iran, have opposed the joint patrols with the Peshmerga. PMF also has a strong presence in many areas of the disputed area.
So far, the PMF has been surprisingly quiet about the new joint arrangement as it tackles a crushing defeat in federal elections earlier this year.
But “at some point they will oppose,” said Zmkan Ali, a senior fellow at the Institute for Regional and International Studies, a research center in Sulaymaniyah.
The path to better coordination often involved a mutual friend: the United States.
Iraqi and Kurdish officials said mediation and support for the US-led coalition played a key role in bringing the parties to the negotiating table.
“They played an important role in coordinating with us and the Iraqi side,” said Jowhar, a peshmerga based in Karachok.
“Without them, we would not have talked – they would not have come here, and we would not have gone there.”
Both sides say that Americans still need to play this role.
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US troops quietly ceased direct participation in hostilities against IS a few months ago and have been providing advice and training to the troops ever since. This role will continue when the combat mission officially ends on December 31st.
The US presence is critical in other ways as well. Americans are paying salaries to many Peshmerga fighters amid ongoing budget disputes with Baghdad. Ismail said about $ 240 million in US funds cover the salaries of some 45,000 Peshmerga employees.
“Fortunately, this will continue into 2022,” he said.