— “It’s coming!” a Kurdish fighter screamed as a truck barreled down the road. “The explosion is coming!”
What was coming Thursday afternoon was the Kurds’ worst nightmare. After a difficult journey across a rocky mountain road, the Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, had seized a strategically important stretch of highway outside Sinjar
from Islamic State fighters. Now, even before their defensive positions were set east of the town, an Islamic State truck bomb was hurtling their way.
A day later, the remains of the blast — human and mechanical — were still scattered across the road. The explosion was so big that it split the truck’s engine block in two and transformed the rest of the vehicle into flying shards of metal and glass, which were strewn on and around the highway.
The frightening episode was captured on a remarkable cellphone video that Muhamad Karim Tahir, one of the pesh merga fighters, recorded from inside an armored Humvee at the scene near Solagh, a hamlet down the road from Sinjar.
The video, which was given to a reporter from The New York Times, shows how the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has polished its techniques for using its own type of precision-guided munitions. Short of technology, the jihadists have drawn on one resource they apparently have in abundant supply: willing drivers whose mission is to survive only as long as it takes to get their bomb to its target.
It also shows the techniques that the pesh merga have developed to cope with the threat, a danger that can emerge so quickly that the Kurds cannot count on American airstrikes to protect them.
The Sinjar offensive, backed by the American-led coalition, began on Thursday, as Kurdish and Yazidi fighters, members of a local religious minority, battled to reclaim Sinjar from the Islamic State, which had brutally controlled the city for 15 months. But well before then, the pesh merga had thought long and hard about how to cope with the group’s suicide drivers. The first step was to bring in a bulldozer with armored plates bolted to the driver’s cab to erect a massive earthen wall across the road they were determined to hold.
Ideally, American A-10 attack planes would sweep in to destroy the suicide vehicles before they reached the Kurds. In practice, the Kurds often need to rely on the anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns provided by the coalition.
Of all the anti-tank missiles the Kurds possess, the German
-supplied Milan is the most prized because of its range. (Some of the Islamic State vehicle bombs are so large that Kurds who use the shorter-range AT-4’s the United States
has supplied could find themselves within the radius of the explosion, Western officials say.)
But the Islamic State has developed its own tactics, too. The Kurds’ bulldozer had erected only half of the dirt wall across the road when the militants attacked.
As the truck zoomed down the road, the pesh merga unleashed a barrage of machine gun fire from the armored Humvees and fighting positions that had been set up beside the highway, to avoid the full force of a truck explosion.
But neither the Islamic State driver nor his truck were stopped by the machine gun fire: a heavy piece of armor had been bolted across the front of the vehicle. The Milan missiles were the only recourse this group had.
“Shoot it! Shoot it!” a pesh merga fighter yelled on the cellphone video.
“Let it come closer,” a commander said over the tactical radio. The Kurds have a limited supply of Milan missiles and did not want to miss.
With the truck racing down the road, a Kurdish fighter fired the Milan, which streaked down the highway and exploded — behind the oncoming truck. There was little time left for a second shot, and the fighters had only one other Milan missile.
“Hamodi, get out!” a fighter implored a comrade. “Hamodi, hurry up!”
The truck was virtually upon the Kurds when the second Milan found its mark, turning the explosives-laden truck into a massive fireball that could be seen from miles away. In that moment, the Kurds did not seem to know if they would survive to fight another day or join the ranks of the more than 1,000 pesh merga who have perished in the war with ISIS.
The cellphone documenting the confrontation bounced around the Humvee, rocked by the blast. But the cries of the fighters inside were recorded.
“God is great! God is great! ” a fighter yelled over and over, fear emanating from his prayers. “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet!”
As the debris settled, a commander was heard over the tactical radio: “Is everybody O.K.?”
“We are all O.K.,” another fighter responded in a radio transmission.
Somehow, all of the fighters had survived. One had a broken hand, but there were no major injuries. The next day, the pesh merga set up a temporary command post at the site of the attack, where they planned the next stage of the fight and grabbed a quick bite among the twisted metal debris and bits of human remains.
By this time, the wall had been completed. Now the armored bulldozer was called in again, this time to cut a path for the pesh merga. In the ebb and flow of the battle, it was their turn to seize the initiative and push west down the road to retake Sinjar.