By a dusty lay-by just a few miles from jihadist fighters, a group of elderly Kurds were drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and tightening bandoliers of bullets under their generous paunches.
“If we get orders, you’ll have to excuse me,” one of them said. “We may be called on to fight at any moment.”
They are the September peshmerga, Kurds who revolted against Baghdad in September 1961 under Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish nationalist leader, and are today defending their homeland against Isis fighters under his son, President Masoud Barzani.
As Iraq’s battle against the Islamic State, also known as Isis, continues to escalate, the September peshmerga have come out of retirement — sometimes literally. Yesterday morning, a steady stream of elderly men re-enlisted with freshly polished AK47s. They have come from around the region, and are being sent to join up with existing volunteer units, but they will also fight alongside the professional army.
“They are loyal and motivated, and they have stamina. They are ready to survive with no tea, no water, no sleep. They’ve done it all before,” said Fazil Rawoof, 55, a former politician who commands Branch 21 brigade. “These guys are experts.”
Mr Rawoof and his 350 volunteer fighters are still waiting for their chance to fight. They have been on standby for four days in the town of Khabat, 15 miles west of Arbil and about five miles from the front line with Isis.
The group has commandeered a stretch of road that includes a small mosque, a petrol station and a car park where the older men sit cross-legged in the shade of pick-up trucks. They are on full alert, but Mr Rawoof admits that levels of readiness are slightly lower than yesterday, when peshmerga forces were in heavy battle nearby.
Branch 21 has fanned out across Khabat alongside professional peshmerga and more volunteers in anticipation of a counterattack by Isis fighters.
Driving through the town, the tension was evident; few civilians were in the streets and just one woman was dashing hurriedly from a shop. On every corner, armed men and military vehicles were at the ready.