War Comes to Kurdistan, the Place Without a Country

After crossing the border into the relative safety of the Kurdish north of Iraq, an extended Yazidi family made home in the ruins of an abandoned home and its grounds in the border area of Peshkhabor. Soon after sunrise men, women and children began waking and appearing from around the grounds of a ruined house that they'd made home in. Andrew Quilty/Oculi

So much can change in so little time in the Middle East.

In spite of this, the northern, Kurdish region of Iraq—a band of territory like a crooked crown atop its Arab motherland—has proved a beacon of growth and stability following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S.

While the Iraqi Government and its Kurdish counterpart—the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), ruled by President Massoud Barzani—have had ongoing disputes over territory, oil rights and autonomy, the two have, for the most part, begrudgingly endured one another.

Iraq has had its hands full since 2003. After the U.S.'s routing of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, focus turned to forming a new government, a constitution and new armed forces. An al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency morphed into sectarian warfare between militias of the Shiite majority and Sunnis, who claimed maltreatment by the Shia-dominated central government. When the U.S. left in 2011, Iraq's security problems were compounded.

Peshmerga forces at a base to the north of Kirkuk. The Peshmerga are viewed by many as Iraq's last hope of pushing ISIS back. Andrew Quilty/Oculi

The Kurds, on the other hand, have been developing with few of the distractions south of the vague border that separates them from their Arab neighbors. With little fuss they absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war to the west while the skylines of major cities like Erbil (the Capital), Duhok and Sulaymaniya sprouted high-rises and five star hotels. At the same time, multinationals like Exxon Mobile poured money in as oil extraction and production increased.

In June, that all changed. With the incursion by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into western Iraq, and subsequent territorial gains across much of the north, the calm of the past decade was no more.

A pick-up truck full of Kurdish Peshmerga forces drives by a crater caused by a US air strike not far from Mosul Dam on their way to continue pushing ISIS back toward Mosul, in August. Andrew Quilty/Oculi

As yet, it's unclear how the new disorder will affect Iraq and Kurdistan, but tensions remain high as ISIS looks for new targets.

In July, with the Iraqi government and its military in disarray, talk of Kurdish Independence was as assured as it had ever been. A referendum was slated for the coming months. With a combination of opportunism and strategic savvy from Kurdish leadership, the long disputed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk fell back into Kurdish hands as did other territory along the border-cum-frontline with ISIS. Things were looking up for the Kurds.

A roadsign near Mosul Dam and the remains of cars destroyed as Kurdish and Iraqi forces with the help of US airstrikes pushed ISIS back from the Dam and toward Mosul in August. Andrew Quilty/Oculi

In early August, however, the reality of what was becoming a broad and increasingly complicated affair hit home. ISIS came within 30km of Erbil and made sporadic attacks and incursions along the length of the front.

Tens of thousands of people from the Yazidi minority ethnic group were chased from their homes and besieged on nearby Mount Sinjar before being given sanctuary in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq to the north. The same happened to Christians from Qaraqosh, Alqosh and elsewhere.

Internally displaced people chase a truck distributing bread rolls at the Khazar refugee camp between Erbil and Mosul where many residents from Mosul and it's surrounds have found refuge following the city's takeover by Islamist militants. Andrew Quilty/Oculi

Schools and empty buildings in every major city are crammed with them. Muslims of the Shiite sect have not been spared either. Lines for gas have stretched for miles with supply roots cut, while the government itself—shortchanged of the seventeen percent of national oil revenue owed by Iraq and with little revenue coming from its own industry—is effectively broke.

The perception of security that the Kurds enjoyed—thanks to the fearsome reputation of the Peshmerga—has also proved fallible. The fighters gained their reputation in the mountains during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's and against Hussein after that, but they're now old, ill-equipped and less effective on the plains than in the hills where their guerrilla tactics were born.

Amir Khro rests against the rope of a tent that his family now calls home following their escape from Sinjar on August 3. Andrew Quilty/Oculi

Without assistance from the air by the U.S. in August, things may have been very different on the wide boulevards of Erbil, just as it may have been for Iraq had air strikes not assisted in pushing ISIS off Mosul Dam.

The Kurds are walking a fine line. Their dream of independence has never been closer, yet, economically, they remain heavily reliant on a weak and vulnerable Iraq while the new threat of ISIS threatens across a 600 mile front line.

Things are changing quickly in Kurdistan.

A men's barber at work inside Kawergosk refugee camp west of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kawergosk, at the time this photograph was taken, had an estimated population of 20,000. The camp was orginally planned to house only 10,000 but the opening of the Syrian/Iraqi border at Peshkhabour and Sahela in mid 2013 has increased the number of Syrians fleeing war-torn Syria significantly. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Residents of Mosul who fled their homes driving east toward Erbil and the region secured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces make a new temporary home at a Shiite refugee camp set up by UNHCR just west of Kalak. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Young Iraqi men, mostly from Mosul and it's surrounds, play football on a dusty hill at the Khazar refugee camp in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Dusk at a refugee camp set up by the Mosul Rd that runs between the besieged city and Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of iraqi Kurdistan. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Vehicles are checked by Peshmerga forces on the Mosul Road, one of the last routes to the safety of Erbil. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
In addition to the fear of ISIS, many also are fleeing in anticipation of indiscriminate airstrikes from the Iraqi government in retaliation against the militants, which could result in the death of innocent city dwellers. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Women from the female-only 106 unit of the Peshmerga's 2nd Battalion on march at the Genral Command Peshmerga base in Sulimaniyah in eastern Kurdistan. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Family's congregate at checkpoints stopped by gridlock as everyone tries to flee. Adjacent to the checkpoint is the Khazar IDP camp, currently home to approximately 1500 people mainly from Mosul and it's surroundings. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Brahim Bishar, 30, woke at sunrise after sleeping alone in a room of an abandoned house near the Iraq/Syria border where he and his extended Yazidi family had made house after fleeing Sinjar. His son, Mazin, 7, came to be with him after he too awoke in another part of the compound. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Christian Iraqis from the town of Qarakosh outside Mosul take shelter at the Ainkawa School for Girls at St. Jospeh's Church in Erbil. Some 450 people from 70 families are at the school while a reported 10,000 have fled Qarakosh in total. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Mayram Saydo took the opportunity to wash her face after cleaning clothes at a small stream at the bottom of Nawroz camp for the displaced. She and the family into which she'd married had just arrived after a 15 day ordeal on Mount Sinjar where they'd fled following the ISIS invasion of their region in August. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Peshmerga soldiers from Duhok wait to be picked up by their fighting unit at Badriya and taken to the front line. Many soldiers are volunteers who see the battle as a means to an independent Kurdistan. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Iraqi Special Forces soldiers shout pro-Iraqi slogans toward a Peshmerga checkpoint at Badriya, after the Peshmerga took issue with the Iraqis brandishing flags including those captured from ISIS. A tense standoff ensued in which a warning shot was fired by a Peshmerga soldier. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
A Kurdish fighter inspects a destroyed ISIS position after pushing them back. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
Against a heavily armed ISIS, some of the Kurdish soldiers are a rag-tag mishmash of old weapons, mismatched uniforms and under-powered verticals, yet they live up to their fierce reputation as tough fighters and continue to push ISIS back. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
An Iraqi Humvee vehicle abandoned by Iraqi Army troops near the town of Dibis, south west of Kirkuk, upon the advance of Islamic militants. Andrew Quilty/Oculi
A man prays after sundown at a Peshmerga checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil. Andrew Quilty/Oculi