There's a loud thump. In the bright midday sun, Mohsen, the driver, fails to see a speed bump on the road to Mosul. Fortunately for him, the speed bump is a Kurdish one, made of asphalt. "The ones made by the government in Baghdad are cement and so angular that they will immediately ruin your shocks," he says. The Kurdish ones, he continues, while softer, still do the job they are intended to do. "It's exactly the same way they conduct politics," he says, smiling.
As the Sunnis and Shiites battle for supremacy in the country, the Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos of recent weeks to dramatically increase their sphere of influence.
A much-traveled road exists between the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is de facto independent, and Mosul, the populous city that has fallen into the hands of the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is roads like this that are both a symbol of and stage for the drama unfolding in Iraq.
The radicals used this frayed band of asphalt to advance and thousands of refugees used it to escape. The road was also used by the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on their advance -- and all of this in the past three weeks after ISIS fighters conquered this city of 2 million in a lightning-fast attack.
A Triumphant Advance
Using Mosul as its base, the group then began a triumphant advance across northwestern Iraq before being brought to a halt just outside of Baghdad. The United Nations estimates that around a half-million people have fled since the ISIS advances began.
The road to Mosul also tells the story of the contradictions that have since become apparent. On Wednesday of last week, cars were lined up at a checkpoint along the road operated by Kurdish troops, their guard house bearing the red, spray-painted message: "Last Peshmerga Checkpoint!" There are some abandoned military vehicles on the side of the road with some shirts covered in dust lying next to them -- the last remnants of the Iraqi army's former presence here.
But the drivers here aren't fleeing Mosul. They are heading back into the ISIS-held city. When asked why they are heading back, many offer the same answer: "Everything is peaceful there, normal. The ISIS people aren't interfering. Hospitals, the municipal administration -- it's business as usual everywhere." One driver says that the ISIS isn't even enforcing its smoking ban. "I drive in and out every day and I always smoke!"
The only things that can't be found in Mosul right now are electricity and gasoline. The latter, though, is a problem elsewhere as well. Since fighting broke out at Iraq's largest oil refinery in Baiji, north of Baghdad, gasoline has also been difficult to obtain in Kurdistan, with people having to wait hours at gas stations or purchasing it from the black market.
The Peshmerga troops at the checkpoint crack jokes about the ISIS. "We can't talk to them anyways," one jokes. "I don't speak Afghan." The sole contact the men have had with the ISIS fighters is through the scope of the snipers located 50 meters (164 feet) away behind a sand embankment.
Trucks carrying food, lumber and scrap metal are traveling in both directions. Mosul residents can be seen driving to buy gas in Kurdistan. Indeed, life in Mosul these days is grotesquely normal considering that the most powerful terrorist group in the Middle East is now controlling the area -- a group that cemented its blood-thirsty reputation in Syria through mass executions and beheadings. Can it really be that just 1,000 jihadists, armed with Kalashnikovs and a few anti-aircraft guns mounted on pick-up trucks, have succeeded in controlling a city of 2 million for the past two weeks? The very notion seems absurd.
"It made for great drama," says one elderly professor from Mosul who fled to Erbil in the Kurdish-controlled area as a precaution. "You can't possibly believe that a few Chechens, Egyptians and Tunisians could bring Mosul under control on their own, can you?" The professor says the ISIS fighters may be wearing masks as they stand at their control posts, "but quite a number of them speak Maslawi, the local dialect used in the former stronghold of Saddam Hussein's officer corps."
The professor contends that the accession to power in Mosul as well as in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and other Sunni bastions was in no way the conquest of ISIS alone, but rather a joint effort involving almost all Sunni forces. "The largest tribes participated as did other Islamists, and it was old cronies from Saddam's Baath Party who pulled the strings," he says.
Consequently, he says, ISIS-controlled areas are relatively quiet now. It's also fitting that ISIS hasn't appointed any religious zealots as governors in Mosul or Tikrit, but rather two former officers and Baath Party officials. Even General Shirko Abdallah, the Kurdish commander of troops in Kirkuk, believes the reports of the ISIS advance are only half true. "They might have the ability to temporarily conquer an area on their own," he says. "But to hold on to it, they would need a strong network, especially in a major city like Mosul. Saddam's old cronies played a role in the background."
'The Don't Even Consider Us to Be Human Beings'
Along the road in the Kurdish areas, hundreds of families are still holding out in dusty camps. Most are from Sunni cities further to the south. They claim they fled out of fears of air strikes ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- and not from the jihadists.
"They don't even consider us Sunnis to be human beings," says Jamil, a police officer who deserted the force in Tikrit. "Only Shiites got promoted to become officers, and it was only the Shiites who landed government contracts. We were second-class citizens." Jamil and his father fled with their family when they heard the Syrian air force jets that bombed Sunni sites in Iraq. "Maliki asked Assad to bomb us Iraqis because he didn't have any aircraft of his own. What kind of leader is that?"
Eleven years after the Americans marched into the country and three years after their withdrawal, the disintegration of Iraq as a country appears to be approaching. Few Sunnis or Kurds in the north believe there are prospects for a common future as a single country. And that sentiment comes across as being more a sign of utter resignation than any product of any latent hatred. Saddam Hussein sought to subjugate the Shiites, but now Maliki, a Shiite, is attempting to do the same to the Sunnis. The Iraqi state simply is now longer working.
Maliki, who won the parliamentary elections at the end of April with just one-third of the vote and has been unable to build a coalition government since, is doing his best to confirm every reservation people have about him. In a televised speech last week, he lashed out at calls in Washington and Europe to form a national unity government comprised of Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders. He described the calls as a "coup against the constitution" and an attack on the "young democratic process."
Maliki also appears immune to America's tried and tested means of exerting financial pressure. The billions of dollars generated by the country's oil fields have made Baghdad financially independent. Iranian leaders are the only ones who are likely to stand a chance of toppling Maliki. But he's also their man and the sectarian policies he's adopted also reflect their desires.
A Country in Decline
As such, the signs in Iraq continue to point towards a decline. ISIS is behaving much more strategically than al-Qaida ever did. In Syria, the terrorist group is terrorizing and killing Sunni rebels who are fighting against Bashar Assad's regime. In exchange, Assad's air force had left ISIS alone, allowing it to expand its base of power in northeastern Syria.
But in Iraq, ISIS has left the Sunnis alone and has instead killed Christians and Yazidi in some places as well as Shiite soldiers with the government army. It's the same terrorist organization and even the same fighters, but they are pursuing totally different goals in each of the countries. That's not how fanatics generally operate.
All the same, the road between Mosul and Erbil shows just how deceptive the current peace can be. For a few hours, things can be quiet, but then, suddenly, a whole convoy of cars from Qaraqosh, the Christian suburb of Mosul, begins making its way towards Kurdish territory. The people claim a grenade has struck the city. Some claim to have heard it, but for others just hearing the rumor alone is enough for them to start moving. Thousands of people flee in a chaotic frenzy. "ISIS is attacking!" one cries out. "They have bombed the churches," calls out another.
In the end, it turns out there has been a brief exchange of fire between ISIS and Kurdish troops who had sought to secure their position with a trench. Years of pent-up fear led to general panic. The whole night long, the convoy of packed cars made its way over the hills, with crucifixes on the back windows and unveiled women sitting in the backseats. Most had very little luggage, bringing only briefcases, small suitcases and drinking water.
"This isn't the first time we have had to flee," says Yussuf, a store owner, as he stares out into the darkness beyond the road.