SNUNY, Iraq – Only stray dogs and a dozen armed fighters walk the streets of Snuny, a ghost town at the base of Mount Sinjar where rapid military changes of fortune are written on the walls.
"Smoking is banned" has been scribbled in Arabic outside one cafe. A nearby building bears the warning: "Submit to the Islamic State, you infidels."
Those messages don't reflect the views of the new management. Today, flags representing various Kurdish political groups flap furiously in the wind over Snuny, claiming ownership of the town's barren streets.
But all along the Kurds' shifting front lines, it's a tenuous hold sustained only with timely air support from the U.S.-led coalition. Questions remain whether the coalition-backed Kurds can secure strategic crossroads like Snuny and renew an offensive versus the Islamic State group, which controls a broad swath of northern Iraq from its base in Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.
The Kurds retook Snuny from the Sunni militants last month, but a weeks-old battle has reached a point of stalemate on the other side of the mountain for militant-held Sinjar. To the southeast, the oil-rich city of Kirkuk remains at risk of Islamic State recapture.
While Islamic State fighters have been forced to retreat from Kobani, the strategic town on Syria's border with Turkey, the battlefield picture suggests they are far from beaten in northern Iraq, where harsh winter weather and thick mud underfoot hampers military moves — and even rear-line positions such as Snuny remain in surprising range of the enemy. Whichever side triumphs will determine whether Islamic State can use the main highway west to funnel weapons and reinforcements to their retreating comrades in Syria.
Just after midnight Friday, fighters from a Yazidi militia and an Associated Press crew were startled awake by the whoosh and thud of mortar shells nearby as Islamic State fighters targeted a headquarters of the Kurdish Democratic Party. Such attacks underscore the sense that disparate Kurdish militias drawn from Iraq, Syria and Turkey have yet to consolidate their gains despite strong coalition air support.
And when the literal fog of war descends, Islamic State fighters have demonstrated a clear edge. Last week they retook most of Sinjar during a period of heavy fog that made it impossible for U.S. and other coalition warplanes to offer close air support to the often lightly armed Kurds.
In Kirkuk, Kurdish forces have suffered painful losses from incessant ISIS militant activity. On Friday, militants attacked several Kirkuk targets and the Kurds lost a senior commander and eight of his troops in battle. Kurdish authorities since have deployed heavy reinforcements to the city, depriving other positions of needed peshmerga fighters.
Overlooking the main highway near Sinjar linking northern Iraq to Syria, a few dozen peshmerga fighters remain in a holding position as they await more arms and troops. Islamic State fighters sought to overrun them last week but were repelled. Kurds described their enemy as cunning and relentless.
"They will never give up," the commander of that position, Brig. Gen. Bahjat Taymes, said of Islamic State fighters dug in barely 100 meters away. "They are ready to die. They are happy to die."