The thousand or so people pressing up against the barbed-wire and chain-link fence were polite but growing impatient as they waited to be searched individually by a pair of Kurdish peshmerga fighters. A third fighter with a long wooden stick loudly reminded them that nobody had the right to cross.
“Shut up and wait,” he shouted, punctuating his command with a snap of the staff and an obscenity. “Any problems and you can walk back to the other side.”
By the other side, he meant 200 meters down an empty stretch of highway to an overpass, where fighters from the Islamic State clearly could be seen watching through binoculars and sniper scopes.
The Maktab Khaled checkpoint marks the furthest forward position for forces arrayed along the 900-mile line that separates Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region from the hostile forces of the Islamic State. From here, 20 miles south of the city of Kirkuk, now under Kurdish control, the highway leads to Baghdad, where the Iraqi government is in control, as well as to Mosul, Tikrit and Baiji, all places where the Islamic State reigns. For anyone wishing to cross out of Islamic State territory – or into, because there are those, too – this is the place to come.
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There used to be others. But heavy fighting outside the northern city of Zummar near the Mosul Dam and the capture in August by the Islamic State of Bartella, a Christian village between Mosul and Irbil, have left only the Maktab Khaled checkpoint open for people who want to cross the lines.
The overwhelming majority are people who want to leave, who come pushing heavily loaded carts filled with possessions because vehicles aren’t currently allowed to travel through the no-man’s land, according to Maj. Staf Farhat, who mans the checkpoint on the Kurdish side.
A far smaller number of people travel the other way, mostly residents of Kurdish villages that are now inside Islamic State territory.
“Most days between 8,000 and 10,000 people total want to cross,” Maj. Farhat said as he sat in the trailer that is his small office.
The trailer is surrounded by 10-foot-tall earthen berms and 6-foot-deep trenches, obstacles to any car or truck bombs the Islamic State might want to send his way. But Maj. Farhat thinks the risk is low. “They want the checkpoint to stay open more than we do,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. That’s why sniping incidents or suicide bombers are rare, he said.
Until about a month ago, vehicles were allowed to cross as well, but that ended – not for security reasons, but because an intelligence officer, who asked to be called “Officer Yousef,” uncovered a fuel-smuggling ring that was bringing refined gasoline and oil into the Kurdish areas, with the proceeds going out to the Islamic State.
“The people doing the smuggling were Kurdish, so that means they were bribing officers in the peshmerga, which means we had a security problem,” Officer Yousef recalled. “That’s when the decision came to stop all vehicle traffic.”
The U.S. also likely influenced the ban; American officials have warned repeatedly that the Islamic State was making more than enough money from fuel smuggling to sustain the group for years. Coalition airstrikes in Syria repeatedly have targeted homemade refinery facilities turning oil from Islamic State-held oilfields into valuable gasoline. Still, the most recent U.S. estimates say the Islamic State earns $1 million a day from fuel smuggling.
Both Maj. Farhat and Officer Yousef said the Islamic State wants to keep the border crossing open, providing the people who now live under its rule some semblance of normal movement and trade. So far, the Kurdish government has been accommodating, though if it were left to the two soldiers, the crossing would be closed.
“I don’t need to go to Mosul,” said Officer Yousef. “And I don’t care if people from Mosul want to come here, but we keep it open and treat people in the right manner.”
Maj. Farhat has another observation from inside his heavily guarded compound.
“You see the trenches and berms around us?” he asked. “They’re to protect the checkpoint from suicide car bombs, but those come from Kirkuk, like the one three months ago that killed 12 of my men.”
Kirkuk is controlled by the Kurds but still has hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arab residents, some of whom are Islamic State sympathizers. It’s an ethnic stress point on the whole front line.
“I’m supposed to be the front line but I have enemies to my back as well,” he said.
A grim humor is at play. When Officer Yousef and a reporter passed into the no-man’s land through a small hole in the fence – please, no English on the other side of the fence, Officer Yousef cautioned – the peshmerga soldier guarding the gate asked where they were bound.
“We’re going to Tikrit for lunch,” Yousef said.
“Great, when you come back cut to pieces, we can have you for dinner,” laughed the officer as the gate closed.
The tired crowd was stressed but clearly had been cowed into behaving well. Nobody spends all day on an empty highway between two enemies with heavy weapons unless they really need to get where they’re going.
“If you stand on that berm you might be able to see their flags,” Yousef suggested, his Glock pistol held alongside his leg as the crowd ogled the two visitors to their side of the fence.
Then he thought better of the idea. “They’ve had time to set up the snipers, so let’s get back down,” he said, pushing back into the crowd.