THE BLOG
15/10/2015 13:39 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 06:12 BST

What I Learnt Visiting the Front Line in Iraq

These people are not stupid and are well informed and well connected - they know what's going on in Europe and they often have family there. Look after them properly and push on with winning the war, and the migrant flood across Europe can be reduced significantly - whether from Iraq or Syria.

"You're going to the front line?!" said the tough looking ex-military character curiously. "Politicians don't normally do that... "

Not the most reassuring words, but then - at one point we were indeed around 1km away from ISIS.

That's close enough for me - I don't look good in orange.

I was with my London MEP colleague Charles Tannock, in my capacity as Chairman of the European Parliament's Iraq Delegation.

Kurdistan is the Kurdish part of Iraq, has a population of over five million, the same as Scotland, but has a 1,050km front line with Isis, including around Kirkuk, where there has recently been heavy fighting, and around Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and Isis controlled.

We had flown disconcertingly low over Mosul en route to Erbil - which was lit up brightly showing its distinctive Arab city round shape - as so many started around citadels and rolled out from those cores in circles.

The front line is a spooky place, lifeless, cut through by dry rocky ravines, and beset with burning columns of smoke - artillery hits? No - to kill the snakes they said. The growing number of sandbags announce the line is near.

We passed a dual carriageway concrete bridge smashed in two by coalition air strikes, over a rickety old British road bridge (the British had a UN mandate from the 1920s to mid-1930s here and invested a great deal).

We turned through an abandoned village - Hassam Sham, that Isis had taken, then been driven out of by Allied bombing and the brave Kurdish 'Peshmerga' ('Ready to die') forces, whose eagle crests represent power. They are the lions of Iraq who have stood firm against Isis when Iraqi forces, especially Sunnis, have too often melted away, leaving their modern equipment for Isis to seize.

These pancaked structures are evidence of how close Isis came to taking Erbil - barely 30km away, and just 15km from Mosul - less than a year ago. A testament to the success of air strikes in tight situations. Do the Peshmerga want to see UK air strikes on Isis in Syria too? Absolutely they say - all air strikes are helpful, and this Isis Mafia state does not distinguish between Syrian and Iraqi lands.

The Peshmerga have lost 1,300 fighters and 7,000 have been injured. I had the honour in Strasbourg to meet a proud old lady, Mrs Othman, who lost three Peshmerga sons to one ISIS shell. Yet she told the Kurdistan President Barzani afterwards "I have more sons".

The Peshmerga army numbers around 150,000 including reservists, but needs much more quality military equipment - including protective NBC suits now to protect them against chemical weapons, mustard gas being the latest evil perpetuated by ISIS/Dhaersh, but also heavy weapons, anti-tank missiles and night goggles. On the front line we found their equipment, like Kalashnikovs, to be basic.

It is thought that Iraq and Turkey are reluctant to better arm the Peshmerga as post ISIS they may be in stronger position to call for their own state. Turkey would rather bomb PKK Kurds - the proscribed Kurdish 'terrorist' groups fighting mainly in Turkey but some just into Kurdistan, than Isis, whilst Baghdad demands all weapons are shipped by Baghdad for checking. The Kurdish YPG in Syria have done well to take on Isis in places like Kobane.

The Isis core army is smaller: they say 25,000 to 40,000 in number, but are well equipped from seizing abandoned Iraqi equipment - Humvees, Abrahams tanks and 155mm howitzers, and they want to die fighting.

The Kurds wryly note that the US spent $100bn on Iraq, took 10 years to train Iraqi forces - then they collapsed in 10 days.

Retaking Mosul is an indication of how complex the politics of Iraq are. The Sunni/Shia divide across the Middle East is absolutely fundamental and the rivalry has gone on for 1,400 years, all originating in argument over who was most qualified to succeed Mohammed. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, Iran is Shia, for example, and these bonds are bathed in blood and devotion, not in lines in the sand as Arab nation states are. Indeed such are the divides now that some senior people we met said that Iraq is finished, 'broken', and will have to break up into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states post the end of ISIS, which is the priority.

The Peshmerga say they could take Mosul, their morale is high. But they need Arab support - and those Arabs must be Sunni not Shia, as Iranian Shia militias have a reputation for brutal treatment of liberated Sunnis. The Sunnis were also driven into the arms of ISIS by former Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki, because he was Shia and allegedly over-favoured the Shiites. Saddam Hussein in contrast was a Sunni who did exactly the opposite. It is clear that all Iraqi forces have their work cut out defending the road to Baghdad, so we all wait.

But waiting has its costs. Internal refugees - Internally Displaced People (IDPs) within Iraq number three million. Liberation will bring millions more. 7.2million more IDPs are registered in Syria.

If they feel nothing is changing, that the war is not ending soon, and that the prospect of returning home is diminishing, they are increasingly likely to look to Europe as a solution. Between August and September 10,000 Iraqis crossed into Greece, whilst 3,500 Christians have left the Christian camps for Europe recently, leaving the Christian community in this Biblical land perilously close to disappearing. Erbil's citadel is 10,000 years old, with UNESCO well engaged in restoring it.

The camp accommodation we saw were 'top of the range' caravans, not the tents within half-finished buildings that IDPs often have to cope with. It costs $10,000 - around £7,000 - a year to house and feed a family in each one, to a reasonable standard. That's much cheaper than on a UK or Berlin housing estate and it's why I think our Prime Minister is right to spend £1billion a year on aid predominantly for such camps.

We will pay, one way or the other.

These people are not stupid and are well informed and well connected - they know what's going on in Europe and they often have family there. Look after them properly and push on with winning the war, and the migrant flood across Europe can be reduced significantly - whether from Iraq or Syria.

It is clear though that the consequences of war and dislocation can no longer be isolated within national boundaries.

In a global world, what happens in Iraq happens to us too.