Southeast of this city, at a place called Hill of the Flowers, Kurdish forces gaze toward a concrete bridge bedecked with fluttering black flags. The guns of a few Soviet-era tanks peer from a nearby ditch at this makeshift frontier not found on any map.
A steady stream of traffic flows in both directions, but the midday calm is deceptive: This spot marks the dividing line between Kurdish-controlled territory and lands under the dominion of Islamic State, the extremist faction that holds sway in vast stretches of northern Iraq and neighboring Syria.
“We are ready for them,” said Maj. Nasser Jaff, commander of Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, standing less than a mile from his adversary’s trademark black banners. “We will not retreat.”
In recent weeks, international attention has focused on Islamic State advances elsewhere in the Kurdish region, such as near the strategic Mosul dam and the city of Irbil, capital of semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. airstrikes have helped push back the militants — and provided a tactical and psychological lift for peshmerga fighters, who fell back last month in a humiliating retreat.
The Kurds have since regrouped and regained ground. For now, their heartland to the north seems secure. But commanders acknowledge that the peshmerga, despite their fearsome reputation, are stretched thin, ill-equipped and have little recent battle experience.
Perhaps no place in the sprawling zone under Kurdish authority is as vulnerable as Kirkuk province, long the focus of competing regional and international interests. For decades, its immense petroleum reserves have been a blessing and a curse.
As evening falls, the skies above the parched landscape are illuminated with tongues of flame ascending from wells burning off natural gas, testament to the billions of barrels of riches below ground.
Kirkuk straddles the contested borderlands between the Kurdish north and the Arab south, marking one of the region’s most volatile ethnic fault lines. No one doubts that Islamic State — with its insatiable desire for resource-rich terrain — yearns for Kirkuk, home to a sizable Arab population, some of whom chafe under Kurdish rule.
Facing a Sunni Muslim-led militant onslaught in June, Iraq’s largely Shiite Muslim government troops cut a hasty retreat. That handed Kirkuk to the Kurds, who now face Islamic State forces across a 600-mile-plus front line stretching in an arc from near the Syrian border in the northwest to the Iranian frontier in the east.
Sporadic clashes have led to the deaths of more than 50 peshmerga fighters in the Kirkuk area, authorities say. Militants also have cut pipelines, limiting oil production. Parts of Kirkuk province remain Islamic State territory.
The city of Kirkuk, which is under Kurdish control, is a ramshackle provincial town with no outward sign of oil wealth, a stark contrast to the gleaming towers and prosperous ambience of Irbil, 60 miles to the north. Recent car bombings have left no doubt that Kirkuk is at risk, both from militants infiltrating from the outskirts and sleeper cells within.
“We are a little worried about Daesh cells,” acknowledged Farhad Hama Ali, an official with the Kurdish police here, using the common Arabic name for Islamic State. In August, he noted, Kurdish authorities captured an Islamic State “emir” who had been living in Kirkuk.
Kurdish officials throughout the north say they need more help, especially from the United States, long an ally of the Iraqi Kurds. But Kirkuk, with its front-line status and coveted resources, is a special case.
“Practically, we are on our own,” said Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim, a neurosurgeon formerly based in Washington and long a leading voice of Kurdish nationalism. “We’d like to be better equipped.... And we’d also like some airstrikes on the areas that are bordering us. “
President Obama’s decision to deploy U.S. air power to protect Baghdad, 160 miles to the south of Kirkuk, and Irbil “caused some apprehension here in Kirkuk,” noted the governor, speaking at his heavily guarded residence.
“People said, ‘Why didn’t he mention Kirkuk?’”
For years, much of the discussion about Kirkuk has focused on the question of its uncertain future: Will it remain with Iraq or become part of an independent, or autonomous, Kurdistan?
Kurdish leaders say Kirkuk is fundamental to any future Kurdish-run region or state, a position disputed by many Iraqi Arabs who fear the status quo amounts to a Kurdish land grab that will be difficult to reverse.
For now, however, the combustible debate about Kirkuk’s political fate has mostly been sidelined. Security is paramount. Few people interviewed here seem to miss the presence of the largely Shiite Iraqi security forces, who had a reputation — especially among Kirkuk’s Arab minority, who are mostly Sunnis — for corruption, brutality and spurious arrests.
“We prefer the Kurds to Maliki’s army,” said Ramzi Daoud, a butcher in a largely Arab district, referring pejoratively to former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, widely unpopular among Iraq’s Sunni Muslims. “Maliki wanted to give Iraq to Iran! He was the worst!” Daoud said as he chopped up a sheep in his small, blood-spattered shop off a busy street.
The Hill of the Flowers checkpoint is about 15 miles from Hawija, a largely Sunni Arab town that is an Islamic State bastion. Hawija is home to militant training camps, indoctrination centers and bases, Kurdish officials say. During the U.S.-led occupation, it was a hub of Al Qaeda-linked militants.
According to Kurdish and Arab leaders, Arab tribal members and others are becoming increasingly fed up with life under Islamic State’s harsh rule. The Islamic State regimen includes forced pledges of allegiance to its self-proclaimed caliphate, executions of those labeled traitors, spies or infidels, and lashes and other punishments for violations of the group’s fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law.
But brief interviews with Arab motorists driving casually into Islamic State territory didn’t elicit any denunciation of the militants. People are of course unlikely to speak frankly to a stranger under the circumstances. But several motorists insisted that things had improved since the Iraqi government had been forced out.
“Mosul is safer than ever, better than ever,” declared Saad Abu Said, 55, a Sunni Arab businessman who travels to and from the northern city, an Islamic State stronghold and former bastion of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. “It’s even better now than during Saddam’s time,” Said added, before accelerating down the road to the masked men checking IDs.
The checkpoint, and all of Kirkuk, stand poised at a strategic juncture. Any broad thrust against the militants will require a Kurdish push from the north and an Iraqi military drive from the south. The current sense of relative normality could soon be shattered, a fact that escapes few here.
“The future of Kirkuk is what happens in all of Iraq,” said Gov. Karim. “We are not isolated here in Kirkuk.”
Special correspondent Kamiran Sadoun in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.