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Battle-tested Kurds watch as ISIS routs Iraqi Army

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    A member of the Kurdish Special Forces is shown positions of ISIS on the front lines near Kirkuk. (Photo by Rick Findler)

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    A Kurdish fighter surveys a valley in northern Iraq. (Photo by Rick Findler)

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    Members of the Kurdish Special Forces walk toward the front lines where they held off the ISIS. (Photo by Rick Findler)

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    A Kurdish fighter takes up a position along the front line in the battle against ISIS. (Photo by Rick Findler)

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    Members of the Kurdish Special Forces stand over the deserted helmets of Iraqi military - which were dropped and left when they fled during fighting against the ISIS. (Photo by Rick Findler)

Rockets and mortars peppered the vast plain below as Kurdish generals surveyed the battlefield. Plumes of smoke rose around the landscape as shells streamed over our heads, and a helicopter circled above. The sound of gunfire was endless, and as a tank roared backward ambulances headed forward.

Embedded with the Kurdish Psehmerga fighters, the defenders of the oil-rich northern enclave in Iraq, we stood ready as the ISIS swept through northwestern Iraq. But aside from a few light skirmishes, the Al Qaeda-linked army of ruthless terrorists seemed bent on taking their march south toward Baghdad, and not into the autonomous zone of Kurdistan, where hardened fighters are prepared to defend their oil-rich turf.

This northern front is one of the few places where ISIS have encountered resistance -- for unlike the Iraqi Army, the cohesive Kurdish force has held them back.

For miles leading up to this front, remnants of an Iraqi Army could be seen in the dust. Helmets and body armor discarded, barrack doors still open, humvees left sitting by the side of the road -- a stark reminder of the army that had faded into the night.

For miles leading up to this front, remnants of an Iraqi army could be seen in the dust.

And that is no exaggeration. On Thursday night, following the takeover of Mosul, Kurdish troops awoke to find checkpoint after checkpoint deserted, as around the region up to 30,000 soldiers had quite literally just run away. 

This is the army that the U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars training, and whose troops were supposed to stabilize the country. But many people we have spoken to believe the U.S. job was not complete, and the army it had worked so hard to build was simply not ready to stand by itself.

The Kurds were not surprised by these desertions. The Iraqi Army has had a culture of corruption from the top down -- soldiers around the country pay half their salary to their commanding officers not to work, and for those without jobs, positions can be bought. This simply doesn't breed a cohesive, motivated force.

In the face of a highly motivated ISIS however, as adept at using propaganda as it is ruthless, they simply panicked.

But this is only one of the reasons for the sweeping success of ISIS. The other crucial one is the widespread hatred toward Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government, which has been accused of stoking sectarian differences. As a result, a number of other Sunni groups and tribal leaders have joined with ISIS, swelling their numbers.

Others believe this is a result of inaction in Syria, where ISIS has been allowed to grow rich, or it could also be seen as yet another front in the ever growing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Whatever the reason, the army here fled --  and into the vacuum came the Peshmerga -- the Kurdish Army that has for decades been fighting for freedom in this mountainous land, and who are now taking advantage of the chaos below them.

Many joke that ISIS has achieved for them in a matter of days what politicians have strived to achieve for a decade, and herein lies a hint at the future of this region.

The Kurds have finally been allowed to reclaim the long disputed, oil rich lands of Kirkuk, and from what we have seen they have no plans of returning it to Iraq. Today on the front lines in Kirkuk, Kurdish forces were digging in, excavating trenches and building defenses. This is becoming a permanent boundary.

As to the question of whether these impressive Peshmerga troops might help reclaim Mosul, Nechervan Idris Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, was clear. Until a political solution is embarked upon, they will not help. To do so would be foolish without the support of other Sunni tribes in the area.

Nor do most people feel they can ever trust promises made by Baghdad, and so the question on everyone’s lips is, might this be the beginning of a push toward Kurdish independence? 

ISIS has recently begun tweeting with the hashtag #SykesPicotOver, in reference to the 1916 lines drawn up by the British and French. It is one of their stated aims to remove these borders, and so far they’re not doing badly.

Baghdad, however, lies ahead of them and is heavily fortified. While Iran may be willing to accept a divided Iraq, it cannot abide losing Baghdad and its corridor to Syria and Hezbollah. Many in Iraq wait nervously to see what will happen in the coming week.

Two days ago, while at the front lines, an Iraqi helicopter circling overhead opened fire on our position, killing six. It was a friendly fire incident, but as we lay cowering in a ditch, the anger was palpable. Whether on purpose or not, the disdain toward the central government erupted, and it was clear where every Kurd stood. Here they have the chance to claim their lands back, and it seems that now they might do it.

Benjamin Hall is a freelance journalist currently embedded with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @BorderlineN