ESKI MOSUL, Iraq – An unarmed Sunni Arab man walked along a road in a patch of northern Iraq newly liberated from Islamic State extremists, holding a white surrender flag — a signal to Kurdish fighters that he is not a militant. Cars drove by, a similar white banner flying from their windows.
As they retake territory from Islamic State militants, Iraqi Kurdish fighters have found surprising ambivalence in areas they freed from the jihadis' oppressive rule. Locals have swiftly shaken off the imposed Islamic lifestyle — but as Sunnis, from the same ethnic group as the militants, many are nonetheless bracing for treatment as collaborators.
For their part, the Kurdish peshmerga troops are suspicious about why the locals chose to stay on when the Islamic State conquered the area in a blitz last year. An Associated Press team travelling with the Kurds found the road to Mosul, a coveted prize in the battle for Iraq, strewn with suspicion and fear.
The recent Kurdish push secured several towns and villages along a critical junction that connects the town of Tal Afar to the city of Mosul — two of the IS group's biggest strongholds in Iraq. The artery, which eventually leads to Syria, has been a vital supply line for militants transporting weapons, goods and people across the lawless Iraq-Syria border.
The Kurdish fighters struggled for months to inch ahead, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. On Tuesday, at least four airstrikes hit IS positions near Eski Mosul, a village of up to about 9,000 residents some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Mosul.
Kurdish Brig. Gen. Bahjat Taymes, who led the peshmerga operation to retake the Tal Afar-Mosul junction, said seizing it was "crucial" because it also leads to the Mosul Dam, which Kurdish and Iraqi forces won back in August with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
Last week's uptick in the airstrikes marked the start of a new, broader effort to disrupt Islamic State's supply lines ahead of an expected operation later this year to take back Mosul, U.S. military officials said.
A senior U.S. military official said military leaders were watching to see how Islamic State militants respond as their supply and communications lines dry up. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operations.
Islamic State fighters destroyed many power lines and bridges trying to slow the Kurdish advance but were eventually routed from the area. In the nearby town of Shandoukhah, bulldozers and Kurdish troops worked feverishly this week to enforce positions, piling up dirt and sandbags as deterrents against suicide bombers or shelling.
"Before we proceed further, we have to secure our backs," Kurdish Col. Marwan al-Mizouri told the AP.
The Kurdish fighters in Eski Mosul — Turkish for "Old Mosul," a name from the Ottoman rule — say they plan to leave as soon as Iraqi troops return but their enthusiasm about pressing ahead in a fight for predominantly Arab territory is half-hearted.
Last June, Iraqi forces suffered a humiliating defeat amid the IS group's lightening advance. Their commanders disappeared, pleas for more ammunition went unanswered and in some cases, soldiers stripped off their uniforms and ran. The Kurdish fighters then filled the vacuum in northern Iraq, seeing a chance to spread out from their semi-autonomous region and claim long-disputed territories in their bid for full independence.
The Iraqi military briefly returned in August for the battle to retake the Mosul Dam, "but we haven't seen them since," said Taymes, the Kurdish general.
The villagers in Eski Mosul are grateful for their Kurdish liberators, many of whom speak almost no Arabic. But the Sunni villagers also know it will take time to convince the newcomers they hold no allegiance to the Islamic State. The militants left much devastation before they fled.
Many in Eski Mosul admit they welcomed the IS when the group first arrived, resentful of what they perceive as years of neglect, discrimination and sectarian policies by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
"We thought they were revolutionaries coming to help us and give us our rights," said 30-year-old grocer, Salim Khudair.
Hard times followed. The village soon lost cooking gas and electricity, forcing the people to heat what little food remained over open ground fires. The cows became emaciated and many stopped giving milk. Most of the infants and the elderly became sickly.
Now, they can glimpse a better life emerging. Cigarettes — strictly banned under the Islamic State, which seized a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria and imposed strict Sharia law — are sold and smoked freely. For the first time in months, women and young girls walk the narrow dirt streets without having to cover their faces. Young boys wrestle and play soccer without fear.
But mistrust lingers.
As several Kurdish fighters on Tuesday handed out bottled water, speaking to the villagers in broken Arabic, a group of village girls came up, timidly saying to the soldiers, "please don't blow up our homes."
Shaimaa, a resident of Eski Mosul who declined to give her full name out of fear for her safety, said her brother-in-law supported the Islamic State and so the Kurdish troops deemed her husband guilty by association and detained him.
Khudair, the grocer, claimed the peshmerga fighters confiscated some of his belongings, including a credit card machine he uses for work.
With the Islamic State still sporadically shells the village — the last time as recently as Monday — some among the Kurds worry the villagers are tipping off the militants about the Kurdish positions.
"We need them to trust us and to cooperate with us," explained al-Mizouri, the Kurdish colonel. He said he believes some villagers are still loyal to the jihadis. "Not all of them, but maybe 10 percent. It is essential that we identify those people and take care of our backs before we continue."
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Bram Janssen contributed to this report.
Follow Vivian Salama on Twitter at www.twitter.com/vmsalama .